By Lincoln Anderson
Three weeks after the deadly Mumbai terrorist attack, the leader of a group of Indian Jews came to the Village Temple to give an insider’s perspective on the horrifying act of violence that shocked the world.
Romiel Daniel is president of the Indian Jewish Congregation of USA, which includes about 350 Indian Jews, living mainly in the New York and New Jersey area. They normally worship in Rego Park, Queens; but on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur — when the Village Temple shifts its enlarged services to The Cooper Union’s Great Hall — the Indian Jews gather at the E. 12th St. synagogue.
Daniel grew up in Mumbai — which he still interchangeably refers to by its former name, “Bombay” — and has lived in New York the last 15 years.
After Friday night Shabbat services at the Village Temple on Dec. 19, Daniel took the podium in the dining room, as a group of about 50 adults and children sat listening attentively, while snacking on cheese, grapes and cookies.
At the outset, he noted that Jews have lived peacefully in India for 2,000 years, attributing this fact to a lack of government-sponsored discrimination.
The 10 drug-and-steroid-fueled Mumbai gunmen were members of a Pakistan-based, Muslim terrorist group.
“What did these terrorists want?” Daniel asked.
“They wanted to hurt and embarrass India,” he said. “They were jealous of India’s prosperity and education.”
Noting that the terrorists singled out American and British people, Daniel said, “They attacked all those who were from successful democratic societies. … Their own societies have not progressed in the last 50 years.”
The gunmen also targeted a Chabad House — a Jewish outreach center — “and they killed all five of our people,” Daniel said. The victims included Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivka Holtzberg, who was six months pregnant, a kosher supervisor and a Mexican Jew who was making aliyah — or immigrating — to Israel.
“Why did they kill them?” Daniel asked. “It was just plain hatred.”
“We do not fear these terrorists — warped monsters who will fade into oblivion,” he stated, adding that the lone surviving Muslim fanatic’s last name translates into “butcher.”
As much as they selected their victims, the terrorists also murdered indiscriminately: Of the more than 170 people killed, 79 were Muslim, Daniel added.
“India has never allowed a Jewish soul to lose its life on Indian soil for anti-Semitism, or because you are a Jew,” he reiterated. “India, where we Jews have lived trouble-free for more than 2,000 years.”
Daniel then offered a prayer, tying it in with the approaching Hanukkah holiday, and ending with the words “Let not a unique people perish.”
The Indian Jewish leader then took questions from the audience. He was asked about the relations between Chabad-Lubavitch — the Hasidic sect that operates the Chabad centers — and the Indian Jewish community. The relationship has been very good, he said.
There are quite a few Chabad Houses in India, Daniel went on. That’s because the Lubavitchers are trying to keep Jewish tourists from converting to Buddhism. The Dalai Lama — the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism — lives in exile in India, where many seek him out, visit ashrams and generally become “JewBoos,” as they are known. There are “thousands and thousands of JewBoos,” Daniel noted.
“At any given time, there are more than 30,000 Israeli tourists in India,” he said. “Unfortunately, they forget for a while that they’re Jewish.”
Most of these Israelis are “army types,” who come to enjoy India’s beaches — especially “the nude beaches,” added David Galsurkar, a fellow Indian Jew, with a smile.
A total of 4,000 Jews live in India.
There are 12 synagogues in Mumbai and its surrounding area. Although these temples are in a Muslim area, “They have never been attacked; they’ve never been touched,” Daniel noted.
The gunmen instead chose to aim their hatred at the Chabad House, because the Lubavitchers “are easily recognized as Jews internationally,” Daniel said.
He added that India’s good relations with Israel may also have been a factor.
“Israel is India’s second-largest trading partner,” Daniel said. “This is what people don’t like, because it’s India and Israel — not a Muslim country.”
Japan is India’s number-one trading partner. The terrorists killed a Japanese businessman.
Janet Falk, president of the Village Temple’s sisterhood, noted that since 9/11, “We live in a different world here — more security. Do you think similar measures will be taken in India?” she asked.
Daniel said security is improving.
“Before they had no security,” he said. “They didn’t think they needed it.” In the wake of the attack, the government is providing protection for synagogues and Jewish centers, he said. Though, he seemed to indicate that, in the future, this might not remain the case.
Galsurkar said every Bene Israel member — as the Indian Jews call themselves — returns to India every two or three years, and that he was in Mumbai when the attack occurred. Rabbi Holtzberg and his wife were very close with the Indian Jewish community, he noted.
Galsurkar said that after the attack — in what was a new sight for him — he found synagogues’ gates closed.
Jews first came to India about 2,000 years ago as traders, Daniel explained. In a holiday tie-in, he noted these ancestors had fled persecution by Antiochus IV, during whose reign the events of Hanukkah — and the lamp oil that miraculously lasted eight days — occurred.