Groups of bearded men in black blazers and wide-brimmed hats prayed aloud and chanted inside the Chabad-Lubavitch headquarters in Brooklyn on Friday, grieving the loss of friends killed in the terrorist siege in India this week.
Many had not slept in two days. They had been frantically e-mailing and calling contacts around the world, searching for any word on the people being held hostage in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish center during the terrorist attacks in Mumbai.
When news finally came, it reduced the religious leaders in this close-knit community to tears: Rabbi Gavriel Noach Holtzberg, 29, and his wife, Rivkah, 28, formerly of the Crown Heights section of New York, were killed, along with three other hostages.
The couple’s son Moshe, who turns 2 today, was “heroically rescued” by a staff worker before Indian commandos stormed the building, said Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky of the Brooklyn Chabad. He said the boy is with family. A second son, who had been sick, was with relatives, Krinsky said.
The Holtzbergs had moved to Mumbai in 2003 to open the religious center for Chabad Lubavitch, a growing Hasidic branch of Judaism that emphasizes outreach to Jews.
“Chabad” is a Hebrew acronym for wisdom, understanding and knowledge. The organization originated in the late 18th century in the Russian city of Lubavitch. In 1940, the movement’s leaders fled Nazism, and moved Chabad’s headquarters to Crown Heights.
About 4,000 Chabad Lubavitch rabbis and their families serve lifetime assignments in 70 countries, double the number of emissaries from a decade ago. Many are stationed in Brooklyn as they await assignments around the world.
Amid the wave of attacks that targeted Americans, Britons and Jews in Mumbai, the Chabad Lubavitch center there was taken over late Wednesday, and the Holtzbergs were among the hostages. Indian commandos stormed the building Friday morning and found the bodies of five people, including Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg.
In Los Angeles
At Chabad’s West Coast headquarters in Los Angeles, a neo-Gothic brick building that was the first Chabad House in the world, Rabbi Chaim Cunin leaned against a table, biting his lip and staring through red-rimmed eyes.
“It’s a blur,” said Cunin, who was among half a dozen called to the Westwood home of his father, Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, executive director of West Coast Chabad Lubavitch, about 4 p.m. Wednesday after news of the Mumbai attacks broke. The younger Cunin and others have worked tirelessly in recent days to help the Holtzberg family, contacting friends around the world.
On Wednesday evening, the elder Cunin spoke on the phone with Gavriel’s father in Crown Heights, whom he grew up with, attending the same school. Cunin reminded Holtzberg of the Yiddish phrase Tracht gut vet zein gut -- “Think good and it will be good” -- trying to keep his friend’s spirits up.
Gavriel had made his final call to the Israeli Consulate in Mumbai earlier that night. Holtzberg’s final words were “Ze lo matzav tov,” Hebrew for “This is not a good situation,” before the line went dead. That story had circulated through Chabad headquarters in New York and to California, the younger Cunin said.
In Crown Heights, police officers patrolled the neighborhood surrounding the headquarters Friday, and New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly paid a visit, offering his support. “When an act of terrorism happens halfway across the world, it has an impact on our community,” Kelly said.
Residents walking along traffic-heavy Eastern Parkway, where the Chabad headquarters is located, stopped in the wind and chill to commiserate about the tragedy, as vendors sold bouquets of carnations on street corners. There are at least 30 synagogues in the neighborhood, and many residents had personal connections to the family.
“They were people who went to the corners of the world for outreach,” said Zalman Zezmer, 24, a Brooklyn yeshiva student, who said he had worshiped with the couple. “For such a terrible thing to happen in their Chabad House, in the place they dedicated their lives to, it’s very hard to accept.”
Gavriel Holtzberg was born in Israel and moved with his family to Crown Heights when he was 9. He held dual citizenship, and studied at yeshivas in New York and Argentina, also serving as a rabbinical student in Thailand and China. Rivkah was born and raised in Israel before relocating to New York.
The couple met through a matchmaker, and they moved to Mumbai soon after their marriage to serve the region’s small Jewish community of businesspeople, tourists and residents and help impoverished and drug-addicted people in the neighborhood. They raised money to purchase a five-story building, which became known as the Nariman House, in the tourist neighborhood of Colaba.
The couple ran the synagogue and Torah classes. Gavriel also conducted Jewish weddings, circumcisions and ritual slaughterings. Since kosher meat was not available in India, Gavriel, a kosher butcher, prepared the meat for himself and the rest of the Jewish community there, said his cousin, Rabbi Dovid Holtzberg, 32, of Monterey, Calif.
Dovid grew up and attended school with Gavriel in Crown Heights. Speaking on the telephone from Monterey, he said: “I’m in disbelief. I cannot believe that I’m talking about my cousin in the past tense.”
Dovid Holtzberg said his cousin told him life in Mumbai was busy, and that many people came to see him. About 10 days ago, Dovid and his cousin connected on the Web networking site Facebook.
The Holtzbergs were working to establish Chabad centers in other parts of India, said Dovid Zaklikowski, a friend in New York, who spoke regularly with Gavriel.
“We are all sharing in this pain,” said Rabbi Mendy Deren, an emissary from Jerusalem who showed up at the New York headquarters Friday. “It really is our brother and our sister. Their son, Moshe, now has 4,000 parents adopting him.”
About 4:30 Friday, Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin walked into the Westwood Chabad synagogue, where preparations were beginning for the Jewish Sabbath, or Shabbat.
Since Jews are not allowed to mourn on Shabbat, Cunin said Sabbath services would continue as usual, as they had in Mumbai and in Israel, though prayers would be dedicated to those who had been killed or injured in the attacks.
“The mourner’s kaddish will be recited over the world this weekend,” Chaim Cunin said.
A memorial service will be held at 11 a.m. Sunday at the Westwood Chabad headquarters.
Gavriel’s cousin said the Holtzbergs would be buried in Israel within the next few days as dictated by Jewish tradition, which requires burial as soon as possible after death, but not on Shabbat.
Friday evening in Brooklyn and Los Angeles, women and girls were called to prayer. They lighted candles 18 minutes before the sun set.
“We call upon Jewish women and girls to brighten the profound darkness the world is witnessing,” said Krinsky of the Brooklyn Chabad. “I’m certain this would be Gavriel and Rivkah’s wish.”
Times staff writer Duke Helfand in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
Erika Hayasaki reporting from New York
Tami Abdollah reporting from Los Angeles