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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Mumbai's far-reaching impact

Dec. 29, 2008
dovid eliezrie

THE JERUSALEM POST

Jewish tradition tells us the first 30 days of mourning are the most intense. This week we mark end of this period since the terrorist attack against the Chabad Center in Mumbai. It's been a watershed event for world Jewry and Chabad. It will have a long lasting effect in diverse ways.

It has sparked an existential dialogue within Chabad. "Why have we become a target for the unfathomable." A few days after the attack, a group of Jewish security experts told me, "You guys are on the frontlines, it was only a matter of time." That's the practical perspective you would expect from security gurus. At a farbrengen held last week for California shluchim that question was at the core of the evening. Rabbi Ezra Schochet, rosh yeshiva, dissected the issue. The intellectual inquiry did not bring him, or us, solace. At the end he said, "We have a question, a question without any answer."

FOR MILLENNIA Jews have grappled with the same questions, seeking to pierce the mystery of divine providence. Shluchim were promised special blessings. Years ago a Chabad supporter suggested to the Rebbe in a private audience that he give more kudos to his shluchim. While the Rebbe showed appreciation, it was done in his classic understated style. Hassidim felt it an honor to serve the Rebbe's higher purposes. After hearing the question, the Rebbe's face took an austere look. He told the man, "They all have children."

Out of the close to 4,000 couples, you can't count on one hand those who do not have children. It's not uncommon in Chabad to find a childless young couples in business make a career change to become shluchim to benefit from this unique spiritual blessing. So how could we, who have had our lives so enriched with so many blessings, lose two of our best to evil is a question gnawing at our souls.

While we have no answer, most of us have taken consolation and inspiration from the Rebbe's message to Kfar Chabad in 1956 after five children and their teacher were killed by terrorists. "In your rebuilding you will find consolation." Last Thursday night the parents of Rabbi Gavriel and Rebbitzen Rivka Holtzberg returned to Mumbai to light the menora. Their message was clear terror will not deter us, only prompt us to achieve more.

Around the world many of us have undertaken new projects. Our community in Yorba Linda, California is writing a Torah scroll in their memory. Just down the freeway, the Chabad Center is placing a shaliah at University of California at Irvine, a hotbed of radical Arab activism. Across the world similar initiatives are being launched.

This tragedy touched a deep chord in the Jewish world.

FOR SOME 36 hours millions watched the drama unfolding. Jews were hunted down and killed for being Jews. Chabad was not attacked as a symbol of the West, as J. J. Goldberg attempted to claim in the Forward. Clearly there were more prominent Western targets in Mumbai. Islamic terrorists sought out Chabad as an objective. A nondescript six-story building tucked away in one the most demographically dense cities in the world. The terrorists searched and found the only rabbi living in the city. Chabad may have been the specific target, but it was an attack on the Jewish people as a whole. It impacted all aspects of the Jewish world. The six victims rooted in the world of Satmar, secular Jews, Zionists and non Zionists.

Sadly in death we were all united. It reminded us of our vulnerability as Jews. It wasn't too long ago that armies marched across Europe in search of Jews, now a force based on religious fundamentalism reaches out from the mountains of Pakistan with the same goals.

THE ATTACK was personal; for the untold numbers of Jews who know a Chabad shaliah, their friend was in mourning. Gabi's father had been my classmate in yeshiva, my son with Gabi himself. Chabad may have grown but we are all interconnected. Our personal pain of reached deep into every Jewish community in the world. Tens of thousands attended hundreds of memorials.

It accentuated a reality that challenges the status quo of Jewish life. Today Chabad is the largest Jewish organization in the world. It eclipses in size and scope all other Jewish groups. As Andrew Silow-Carroll of the New Jersey Jewish News noted, the event has "repositioned Chabad as the de facto Jewish vanguard, and made other Jewish groups acknowledge it." The attack has sparked and rekindling of the relationship between Chabad and other parts of the haredi world.

The schism has deep roots reaching back to split between hassidim and mitnagdim two centuries ago. In modern times it has been intensified for a variety of reasons. The messiah issue worried many. The haredi world responded to the challenge of modernity by erecting barriers. Chabad chose to engage it, look for the good and offer its contribution to all. While most haredim stepped back into their own world, Chabad reached out to others.

AT THE funeral, standing together with hassidic rabbis were President Shimon Peres and leaders of Israel's key parties. Their participation was reflective of Chabad's willingness to play a role in larger society while decisively maintaining Jewish principles. Mumbai was the catalyst for the haredi community to seek reconciliation. As the editor of Yated Ne'eman (different than its Israeli namesake) in the US, a paper that historically would not acknowledge Chabad, wrote in article lauding the Holtzberg's self sacrifice, "We are tribes of a same nation." Strangely it's the shluchim around the world who have laid the ground for this rapprochement. At the shluchim convention held in New York a week before the attack, leaders of Satmar sat at tables of shluchim they have become friends with during their business travels. In recent years even the most insular Lithuanian yeshivot have discovered the importance of outreach.

A few days after their passing, JEM, Chabad's producer of film and video released a hastily assembled memorial video on their lives. They had discovered a rare clip of Rivka Holtzberg talking about her life in Mumbai. Her warmth, charm and inner beauty radiate on the screen. One moment deeply touched me, when asked how can you have dozens for dinner every night, she responds in the typical Israeli, "Zeh kef - its fun." Her joy in giving to others was palatable. If only if each of us could capture a part of that enthusiasm and infuse it into our lives, how much better the world would be.

The writer is a Chabad shaliah in Yorba Linda, California. rabbi@ocjewish.com

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