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Chabad mourns slain couple

Song and Rohrlich are Times staff writers.

Jews in Los Angeles on Sunday mourned a slain couple who had run a Mumbai Jewish center besieged by terrorists. As local leaders decried the attack in India, arrangements were underway to move the emissaries’ 2-year-old son Moshe to Israel, where he will live with his maternal grandparents and the nanny who rescued him.

About 1,000 people attended a memorial at the West Coast headquarters of the ultra-Orthodox Chabad organization in Westwood, closing a stretch of Gayley Avenue as they paid tribute to Rabbi Gavriel Noach Holtzberg and his wife, Rivkah, and vowed to remain steadfast in the face of the attacks.

Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, executive director of West Coast Chabad Lubavitch, addressed his remarks directly to the terrorists, saying, “You thought you would do us in, but . . . we the Jewish people, we who believe in light . . . we shall continue.”

To sustained applause, Marshall Grossman, the Chabad house chairman, said of the terrorists: “May they burn in hell.”

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Moshe’s grandparents are affiliated with the world’s largest Jewish orphanage, Migdal Ohr, which serves 6,500 orphaned and disadvantaged children in northern Israel, a spokesman said.

Sandra Samuel, the nanny who saved Moshe, has told reporters that she hid for 12 hours at one point last week when terrorists took over Mumbai’s Chabad-Lubavitch Jewish center, which was run by Holtzberg, 29, and his wife, 28. The center served Mumbai’s Jewish community and was a home away from home for traveling Jews.

Samuel, a resident of India, said she heard Moshe crying and found him standing next to his parents. His clothes were partly covered with blood. Samuel said Moshe’s parents were lying on the floor and appeared to be unconscious. She scooped up the child and fled the building along with the center’s caretaker.

“She basically dared the terrorists to shoot at her while carrying a baby,” said Robert Katz, the orphanage spokesman.

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Katz said he heard the story from Migdal Ohr’s founder, Rabbi Yitzchak Dovid Grossman, who is also the baby’s great-uncle by marriage. Rivkah Holtzberg’s mother is the sister of Grossman’s wife. Holtzberg’s father runs an elementary school for girls at Migdal Ohr, Katz said.

Moshe marked his second birthday over the weekend with his maternal grandparents, who arrived in Mumbai during the siege.

Katz said the child, nanny and grandparents and the Holtzbergs’ bodies were scheduled to leave India today.

“The child will live with his grandparents at this point. . . . They live close to Migdal Ohr,” Katz said. “When he is ready, he will be attending one of their full-time day-care centers.”

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The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that nine Jews, mostly Israelis, were killed in the terrorist attack on the Chabad house, which is in a tourist district. The attack was part of a coordinated assault on symbols of wealth and foreign influence. Combined, the attacks have left 195 dead in the port city known as a financial center and as the home of Bollywood, the Indian equivalent of Hollywood.

Haaretz also reported that bodies of those slain at the Chabad house were wrapped in prayer shawls; it was unclear who wrapped them. Katz of Migdal Ohr said he was told that the terrorists rigged the bodies of the dead with hand-grenade booby traps.

On Sunday, Israeli and Jewish leaders debated whether, and how, to increase security at Chabad houses, which are in hundreds of places around the world and are meant to be open to the public. And they remembered the Holtzbergs as young and vibrant people who remained dedicated to their cause even as they confronted misfortune in their personal lives.

Gavriel Noach Holtzberg was born in Israel and raised in Brooklyn, site of the headquarters of the Chabad-Lubavitch sect, whose emissaries provide outreach to Jews. Rivkah Holtzberg was born and raised in Israel.

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Katz said the couple’s first child died of Tay-Sachs disease, a fatal neurological disorder that principally afflicts Jews of Eastern European origin. A second child also has the disease and is being cared for in Israel.

Several speakers at the Westwood memorial praised the Holtzbergs, saying it was clear that Jews were targeted during the attacks.

“The reason that the building was targeted, and not the one next to it and not the one behind it, was because it had a . . . Star of David on it,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who was joined at the event by City Councilman Jack Weiss and Sheriff Lee Baca.

Sherwin Isenberg, a UCLA ophthalmologist who conducts research in India, said he visited the Holtzbergs a week before their death. He described them as a generous couple who opened their home to others, the wife tending to their child and the husband leading the men in a spirited dance. Gavriel Noach Holtzberg also spoke of treating animals sensitively, he said

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“Here was a brilliant and dedicated rabbi preaching how we should be humane to animals, only to be massacred by human animals four days later,” Isenberg told the crowd.

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jason.song@latimes.com

ted.rohrlich@latimes.com

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