Nine years ago, the city of Mumbai, India, was hit with a series of coordinated terror attacks by an Islamic militant organization which culminated in a “final attack” at a Chabad House and synagogue which resulted in the brutal murder of a Chabad Rabbi and his pregnant wife as well as their four guests.
The attacks started on Wednesday evening, the 26th of November, leaving 164 dead and scores more injured.
One of the terrorists’ chosen targets was the local Chabad House, known as the “Nariman House,” operated by Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries Rabbi Gavriel Noach (Gabi) and Rivkah (Rivki) Holtzberg.
In the subsequent standoff, which continued until Friday afternoon, Rabbi Gabi and Rivki Holtzberg and several other Jews in the Chabad House were snuffed out.
This story is not a pretty story, but much like the Holocaust, it has to be remembered and retold… as you will see at the end of the story, out of their ashes rose a legacy and a revival.
The Chabad House in Mumbai was seized and attacked during the November 2008 Mumbai attacks. At around 21:45, on Wednesday evening, the 29th of Cheshvan 5769, four attackers launched an attack on the Chabad center. Newscasters were calling it the “final assault”. A day earlier, ten Jihadi terrorists had landed on the beach at Mumbai. Splitting into five pairs, they each have a specific target. One pair, however, has a special assignment. The group leader warned Babar Imran and Nasir Abu Umar of the significance of their mission. They were to target and kill Jews. He stressed to the two jihadis that their task is the most important one. On cell phone conversation that were intercepted by Indian police, the terrorist ringleader, Ismail Khan, briefed them for the last time.
“When you kill one [Jew] . . . it is worth more than killing fifty people.”
( Audio tape of the terrorists speaking to Jewish hostages and promising them “Don’t worry you will home and safe for your Sabbath” can be heard HERE )
Even if all the other attacks fail, the Chabad House operation to kill Jews must succeed., he warned. He emphasizes that the previous targets of the hotels, a café, a train station – are merely intended to amplify the effect of the attack on Chabad House, which will send a message to Jews around the world.
Although their colleagues have already begun their killing spree, lobbing grenades and randomly firing their AK-47s into the nearby Leopold Café, Babar Imran and Nasir Abu Umar take their time locating Nariman House. Once there, they know it should be a cakewalk. Despite its tight connections with Israel, the Chabad House is a soft target – much easier to hit than, say, the tightly guarded Israeli diplomatic mission or the offices of El Al, Israel’s national airline.
The two make their way to the crowded residential neighborhood of Mumbai’s and into the Chabad House, which is run by the twenty-nine-year-old American Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his twenty-eight-year-old Israeli wife, Rivka. Babar Imran and Nasir Abu Umar force their way into the Chabad House, where they are confronted by Rabbi Holtzberg and his wife.
An eyewitness recounted that she heard Rivka Holztberg defy the two gunmen: “Shoot me . . . shoot me,” she yelled. Without hesitation the jihadi pulled the trigger and Rivka fell to the floor, Then the witness heard Rabbi Holtzberg also confront the two. “Shoot me,” he said before more shots rang out. The Rabbi and his wife’s had heard about the attacks earlier that evening, the media said that hundreds had died in the hotels and train station attacks. Police speculate that they knew they would meet the same fate and did not want to see their loved ones suffer or have their loved ones see them suffer. The gunmen then snuffed out the two male Chabad House guests, Rabbi Leibish Teitelbaum and Rabbi Benzion Kruman, 2 mashgiachs who were in town to supervise a mushroom plant.
The gunmen then took fifty-year-old Norma Rabinovitch and sixty-two-year-old Yoheved Orpaz hostage. Leaving the four bodies behind, they forced the two women to the upper floors. The gunmen do not know that the nearly two-year-old son of the Holtzbergs is in bed in another room.
During the siege U.S. Chabad official, Rabbi Levi Shemtov talked with one of the attackers on Holtzberg’s cell phone. The FBI and other negotiation experts helped guide him through the process, which included around five phone calls. Having to find an Urdu speaker to speak with him, they were unable to directly speak to any of the hostages, but Shemtov did say he heard the voice of one woman screaming in English, “please help immediately.”
The Holtzbergs’ baby who was almost 2 at the time was miraculously saved by Moshe’s nanny, Sandra Samuel, was also in the building but had managed to hide in a room downstairs. She emerged only when she heard Moshe’s cries and found him standing between his parents’ bodies. Without thinking, she grabbed him and ran, reciting Psalm 23 as she fled the building just before commandos swarmed the building.
Shortly before dawn, Indian security forces began an attack on the Chabad House that lasted until after sundown. The operation began when commandos rappelled out from an Indian Air Force Mi-17 helicopter on the roof of the building.
The commandos were in position in the adjacent buildings to provide cover fire to the assault team if needed. Commandos entered the building from the top and two loud blasts were heard followed by heavy gunfire. Most of the operation was broadcast live on television as news footage showed troops abseiling from a helicopter into the building and soldiers on the ground closing in. When the raid ended at sundown everyone inside the building was dead.
RABBI ARYEH LEIBISH TEITELBAUM
Rabbi Aryeh Leibish Teitelbaum, the 37-year-old son of the Grand Rabbi Nachum Ephraim Teitelbaum, known as the Volover Rov, was a dominant figure in his father’s kosher certification organization, known for its impeccable standards. He was in India at the time as a kosher supervisor. A resident of Jerusalem, he was a son-in-law of the Rebbe of the Toldos Avraham Yitzchak chassidic community.
Teitelbaum left behind a widow and eight orphans, the oldest at the time having just reached the age of bar mitzvah, and the youngest a few months old.
In addition to being known as an extremely learned individual, Teitelbaum was a gentle soul and a pious young man, with a cheerful and sunny personality, beloved by all who met him.
RABBI BENZION KRUMAN
Rabbi Benzion Kruman, a devoted husband and loving father of three young children, ranging in age (at the time) from two months to five years, was 28 years of age. Kruman, an eminent Torah scholar, grew up in Bat Yam, Israel, in the local Bobov chassidic community.
A kosher supervisor, Kruman was in India to help his colleague, Rabbi Leibish Teitelbaum, inspect a mushroom packing plant. The two stopped in the Chabad House for the afternoon prayers. Unfortunately, this short stop ended in their tragic murder.
Kruman is survived by his wife, Emunah; three children, Mordechai, Serrie, and Rivkah; his parents; and nine siblings.
A resident of Givatayim, Israel, Yocheved Orpaz had traveled to India to visit her daughter and two grandchildren in Mumbai. Since Orpaz ate only kosher, the Holtzbergs provided her with food and showed her what to buy in the market. At the end of the trip, Orpaz went back to the Chabad House to thank Gabi and Rivky. A short time later, the gunmen attacked the Chabad House.
The 62-year-old grandmother and mother of four, described by her friends as a noble woman and a kindhearted soul, was among those mercilessly killed.
Norma Shvarzblat-Rabinovich, a 50-year-old mother of three from Mexico, was in the process of moving from Mexico to Israel to join two of her children living there. She had been staying as a guest at the Chabad House in Mumbai in the days leading up to the fateful attacks, while she sorted out her immigration paperwork.
Shvarzblat-Rabinovich had planned to take a December 1 flight to Tel Aviv, in order to arrive for her son’s eighteenth birthday. In the end, an Israel Air Force jet transported her body on the same date.
She will be remembered by her son, two daughters, and many friends as a loving and hospitable woman who protested injustice and loved nature, a naturally friendly person who liked to laugh, talk, and meet new people.
THE HOSTS: RABBI GAVRIEL AND RIVKAH HOLTZBERG
Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg was born in Israel, and moved with his family to the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y., when he was nine. He studied at yeshivahs in New York and Argentina, and as a rabbinical student, served Jewish communities in Thailand and China. He was 29 at the time of the attacks.
Rivky, Gavriel’s 28-year old wife, was born Rivkah Rosenberg in Afula, Israel.
The Holtzbergs married in 2002, and abandoning the comfortable life they could have had in Israel or the U.S., the two moved to Mumbai a year after their marriage to serve as Chabad emissaries and open the first Chabad House in Mumbai. They served the small local Jewish community, visiting businesspeople, and the numerous tourists, many of them Israeli, who annually travel to the seaside city.
Gabi and Rivky were no strangers to hardship. Their first child, Menachem Mendel, died from a congenital disease, and another son, Dovber, also suffered from the same disorder, and passed away a few weeks after his parents were killed.
Besides being a trained mohel and slaughterer, Gabi also conducted weddings for local Jewish couples, and taught numerous Torah classes at the Chabad House and other locations across the city.
Despite his young years, he left a legacy of selflessness, dedication and kindness that will be widely admired for many years to come.
Rivky forged close friendships with many members of the community in India, and was always available for a heart-to-heart conversation with a traveler passing through. She was passionate about the classes she taught, and especially enjoyed explaining the beauty of the Jewish view of marriage and intimacy. A great source of pride for Rivky was the mikvah (ritual bath) that the Holtzbergs had built for Jewish women in Mumbai.
2-Year old Moshe, may have been beaten by the militants, reports have claimed. His back was covered in bruises consistent with abuse, the chairman of Zaka, Israel’s ultraorthodox recovery service, told the media.
In an emotional scene before the flight to Israel, Moshe repeatedly cried for his mother at a tearful memorial ceremony at a Mumbai synagogue. The scene was broadcast repeatedly on Israeli TV stations.
‘You don’t have a mother who will hug you and kiss you,’ Rabbi Kotlarsky cried out during a eulogy that switched back and forth between Hebrew and English. But the community will take care of the boy, he vowed: ‘You are the child of all of Israel.’
Moshe flew to Israel on the same plane that was carrying his parents’ bodies. His family had asked his nanny to stay and live in Israel because she was the only person that Moshe was responding to.
The Holtzbergs were buried in Israel along with four other victims of the attacks.
Throngs of mourners packed the funerals of the six victims, turning the narrow alleys of one Jerusalem neighborhood into a sea of black coats and hats.
Those in attendance included Bibi Netanyahu, Shimon Peres and a slew of other dignitaries.
Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, a Chabad official from New York, delivered an impassioned eulogy, describing the young couple as dedicated people who would stop at nothing to help a fellow Jew.
‘We will answer the terrorists,’ he vowed, his voice shaking. ‘We will not fight them with AK47s. We will not fight them with grenades. We will not fight them with tanks.
‘We will fight them with torches!’ he cried, referring to God’s teachings.
He pledged to rebuild the Mumbai center and name it after the Holtzbergs.
Addressing the crowd, Peres called on the world to unite in the fight against terrorism. He singled out Iran, which supports anti-Israel militant groups and whose president has called for Israel’s destruction.
‘If the entire world doesn’t join together as one man and say ‘enough!,’ then the world is in danger. This is a plague that is difficult to stop,’ he said.
The nanny would continue to raise Moishie together with his grandparents in Israel.
The Holtzbergs’ Legacy
The Jihadi terrorists killed Rabbi Gabi and Rivkah Holtzberg but he could not extinguish their legacy. These are theMany children named after Gabi and Rivky Holtzberg. According to the estimate provided by the parents of the slain couple, on the first anniversary of the couple’s untimely demise, nearly 500 children carry the names of Gavriel and Rivky. a 63-Year-old Dutch man also changed his name to Gavriel Noach.
And many others….
Many institutions have been established to perpetuate their memory and legacy of light of the Holztbergs.
Here is a description of just some of the institutions bearing the names of Gavriel (or, as he was better known, “Gabi”) and Rivkah:
S. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands
Shortly after the Massacre in Mumbai, Rabbi Asher and Henya Federman, the directors of Chabad Lubavitch of the Virgin Islands, opened the Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg Jewish Welcome Center.
East Bentleigh, Australia
In March of 2009, a new kindergarten was established by Chabad-Lubavitch of East Bentleigh, a suburb of Melbourne, Australia, named Gan Gabi and Rivkah.
The kindergarten was established while Rabbi and Mrs. Nachman Holtzberg were visiting Australia, and they were present at its dedication. Visibly emotional, Rabbi Holtzberg asserted that creating new educational institutions that teach the values of love and peace are the best response to terrorism.
Har Chomah, Jerusalem, Israel
Also this past March, a newly constructed kindergarten in the Har Chomah neighborhood of Jerusalem was dedicated and named Ganei Gabi v’Rivky. The kindergarten is part of the extensive network of Chabad-Lubavitch pre schools in Jerusalem.
Before Rosh Hashanah of 2009, Chabad-Lubavitch in Issaquah, WA, known as “Chabad of the Central Cascades,” dedicated their new Chabad house in loving memory of the Holzbergs
Lt. Governor Brad Owen and Issaquah mayor Ava Frisinger also took part in the ceremony, which also featured the dedication of a new Torah Scroll into the new Chabad House.
In the summer of 2009, Chabad-Lubavitch of Yahud, Israel, completed the construction of Midreshiat Rivkah, a women’s Torah academy, named after Rivkah Holtzberg.
Gan Rivka, the second Chabad-Lubavitch pre-school in Rome, opened its doors in September of 2008 in the Monteverde quarter of Rome, home to thousands of Jews of Roman and Libyan descent. As the Hazan’s started building their new community and got to know more families the need and demand for a pre-school arose and the Gan opened its doors.
Marin County, California
Another Gan Rivkah was opened in March of 2009 by Chabad-Lubavitch of Marin, CA. This “Mommy & Me” program for Jewish moms and tots was launched and dedicated in memory of the Holtzbergs. The group is geared for children, who, together with their moms, learn about their Jewish heritage by means of crafts, games and sing alongs with a special emphasis on developing each child’s creativity.
Since its opening, the program’s attendance has steadily grown.
A Chabad-Lubavitch synagogue that opened in Hendon, Northwest London, was named Beis Gavriel.
A number of the members of this synagogue had traveled to India in the past, meeting Gabi and Rivkah along the way. In July, the members of the synagogue met with Rabbi and Mrs. Nachman Holtzberg, parents of the slain Mumbai rabbi. “Thank G‑d, they were impressed by what we established,” says Rabbi Menachem Junik, director of Beis Gavriel.
In June of 2009, Chabad of Korea opened the country’s first Jewish library.
Rabbi Osher Litzman, who opened the Chabad House in Seoul in 2008 was moved to open a library and dedicate it to the Holtzbergs after learning that the bookshelves were the only part of Mumbai’s Chabad House not destroyed in the terrorist attacks.
Morris Park, NY
Chabad at Einstein, serving the Morris Park, NY, community and the students and faculty of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine of YeshivaUniversity, launched a bikur cholim (hospital visitation) project.
Included in this project is the dedication of a new hospitality home, the Holtzberg Hospitality Home. This project will endeavor to meet the needs of families of patients in the medical center.
College Station, Texas
Though this one isn’t a new institution, it merits mention due to its uniqueness. Chabad-Lubavitch at Texas A&M University constructed a Holy Ark that is a replica of the Ark that graced the Chabad House in Mumbai. (Due to height restriction, the domed top of the Ark was not replicated.)
Along the top of the Ark is inscribed: “In memory of Rabbi Gavriel Noach and Rivkah Holtzberg.”
Many dedications of New Torah Scrolls were made in Holtzbergs’ Memory. The Holtzbergs embodied the principles of the Torah. As such, many saw it apropos to memorialize them through dedicating new Torah scrolls.
Chabad House In Mumbai Continues
The terrorists took the lives of Rabbi Gavriel (Gabi) and Rivkah(Rivky) Holtzberg and their guests, but all the guns and grenades in the world cannot put a dent in the ideals that the Holtzbergs embodied. Gabi and Rivky dedicated their lives to helping others and increasing light in Mumbai—and their work will certainly be continued. In fact, their work has not stopped.
Less than a month after the murders, Chabad was back for Chanukah festivities. On the holiday that celebrates the triumph of light, they were there to bring light to the city of Mumbai, where terrorists had taken the lives of not only the two Chabad emissaries and their guests but hundreds of others as well.
The evening’s events began with the lighting of a restored 25-foot steel menorah outside of the destroyed Chabad House. Rabbi Nachman Holtzberg, father of Gavriel Holtzberg, lit the menorah, and an estimated 200 people gathered in front of the building.
An hour later, more than 600 people congregated at the Gateway of India monument – the giant arch near the Taj Mahal Hotel where investigators believe the terrorists entered the city – to witness Rabbi Shimon Rosenberg, father of Rivky, light an almost identical menorah. This was also the site where the Holtzbergs had erected a menorah every year. Onlooker Shameera Galsura, 23, a member of Mumbai’s local Jewish community, said that the ceremony was the perfect antidote to the fear that pervaded her city. “People here are all talking about the menorah.”
He is now almost 10 and lives in Afula, Israel, with his maternal grandparents—Rabbi Shimon and Yehudit Rosenberg. Surrounded by family, he is said to be a happy, healthy boy.
Rabbi Kozlovsky and his wife Chaya accepted the position to direct the center. They said they initially had concerns about taking the job, given the events of 2008 at the location.
“I remember the first few nights, we couldn’t sleep,” Kozlovsky said.
The Kozlovskys said they take safety precautions while doing their work, but they want to continue welcoming people into the center.
“It’s a good challenge,” said Kozlovsky. “Everything can happen in Mumbai, in India.”
The Kozlovskys said they were keen to continue the work Holtzbergs started.
“We live their lives on a daily basis,” the young rabbi said. “Everything that we do in India, they are always… standing here behind us.”
Chabad.org contributed to this story