Building and Rebuilding the Chabad House
“This is where they found my brother and his wife, lying over here.”
Moshe Holtzberg gestured to a patch of floor just outside of what used to be his brother’s office. The walls of the Chabad House, a Jewish community center in Mumbai’s Colaba neighborhood, are riddled with bullet holes. It looks like hell.
“This is the Holy Ark,” Moshe told FRONTLINE correspondent and ProPublica reporter Sebastian Rotella on a tour of the building this past summer. “One bullet hole went through the ark and hit the scripture. And where it made a hole was a place in the verse where it says, after the murderings of the true sons of Aaron, they passed away when they devoted their lives to God.”
“It’s a crazy story.”
Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, his pregnant wife Rivka, and four others were killed here by two Lashkar-i-Taiba militants during their late November 2008 siege of the city, which killed 166 people. While Lashkar’s other targets — the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, the Oberoi Trident hotel, the Leopold Café and the largest train station in Mumbai — were centrally located, busy, public places, the Chabad House is tucked away amidst a web of narrow streets and alleys.
“The first time I came here I was going on hours until I found this place,” Moshe Holtzberg told Rotella. “We can feel safe to say that this building, without [David] Coleman Headley, probably wouldn’t have been attacked.”
Gavriel Holtzberg and his family came to Mumbai from Brooklyn as Jewish emissaries in 2003. They were adherents to the Chabad-Lubavitch movement of Orthodox Judaism and Rebbe Menachem Schneerson, who encouraged his followers to take responsibility for deepening Jewish faith around the world.
Gavriel and Rivka Holzberg (photo courtesy of Moshe Holtzberg)
Gavriel was long viewed as an emerging leader within the Chabad-Lubavitch community of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. A New York Magazine profile of the couple described Gavriel as having “the quality of relentless piety,” and he’s remembered as having walked six hours to “share a Torah thought” in a Jersey suburb.
And while Rivka was “less about standing out as a scholar or analyzing the brilliant debates of the sages than about candles and purity and making a Jewish home,” the same profile describes her as a lover of travel who was “looking for a challenge.”
After years of schooling and other emissary work, the married couple was given the assignment to lead a new Chabad in Mumbai, the first of its kind in India.
When they first arrived, they struggled. Mumbai, after all, is no Brooklyn. Without the money to buy or rent space to create a Jewish community, they worked out of a hotel room.
Finally, after years of fundraising, they purchased a building known as the Nariman House in 2006. It (finally) became Mumbai’s Chabad House, serving as a place for Jews living in or visiting India, offering a place to sleep and eat, as well as Internet access and Torah classes. It wasn’t the most beautiful or luxurious of locations; certainly no Taj hotel. It could be a bit lonely. It was often hard to find Kosher food — like the Kosher pizza found in Brooklyn, recalls Moshe.
But it was home, it was their mission. The family grew to include three sons, but the first two, Menachem Mendel and Dov Ber, were born with Tay-Sachs disease, a fatal genetic disorder. Menachem Mendel died during the purchase of what would become the Chabad House. Dov Ber died in an Israeli hospital in December 2008, a few weeks after his parents were killed. The couple’s third son — named Moshe, like Gavriel’s brother — did not have the disease.
The purchase of Nariman House was made possible by a large donation by investment banker George Rohr. In this video, which was likely made soon after the 2006 purchase, Gavriel Holtzberg thanks the Rohr family:
Video courtesy of Jewish Educational Media
“My brother and his wife put all their lives over here, and their energy,” said Moshe. “He put so much energy to get this place going, collecting funds and everything. Finally when it was beautiful — terror.”
While the Holtzbergs hosted Jews from around the world in Mumbai, David Coleman Headley was busy staking out places for people to die.
David Coleman Headley in an undated photo
Headley, a Pakistani-American former heroin smuggler turned DEA informant and then Lashkar-i-Taiba terrorist, began traveling between Pakistan and Mumbai in the fall of 2006. Allegedly sent by Lashkar mastermind Sajid Mir and a mysterious Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence officer known as “Major Iqbal,” Headley was charged with meticulously scouting the city and reporting back with video and GPS coordinates of possible targets for an attack.
For Headley, the task was fairly simple: He set up a business front in the city, and rented an apartment. He pumped iron with a Bollywood B-movie actor. He wasn’t out of place lounging in the Taj or the Oberoi; he looked like an American tourist, or a software engineer in town for the latest conference.
After two years of intricate planning throughout the city — the Lashkar militants who laid siege to Mumbai had never visited, relying instead on Headley’s advance work — he was tasked by Iqbal in June 2008 to scout an additional location: the Chabad House. According to Headley, Iqbal told him it was “a front office for the Mossad,” Israel’s intelligence agency.
There is no evidence that suggests Iqbal’s statement was true. But by killing Jews and Americans, Lashkar could broaden the attacks into a warning to the rest of the world.
“Every person you kill where you are is worth 50 of the ones killed elsewhere,” a man believed to be Sajid Mir told the Lashkar terrorists at Chabad House in an intercepted phone call from the attacks, later broadcast in the HBO film Terror in Mumbai.
“This target was so symbolic,” Deven Bharti, commissioner of investigations for the Mumbai police, told FRONTLINE. “Headley could locate that particular target and he could guide through his video coverage to all the terrorists who directly reached there and entered into that building. And it’d still be a major task because locating that building in the shanties there, it is very difficult. … The location of Nariman House itself, you know, the common man of that area also never knew that this structure exist there.”
But now David Coleman Headley knew. And that means Lashkar-i-Taiba did, too.
Moshe Holtzberg was on a mission in Argentina when he received a long-distance call from a friend’s father. It was Nov. 26, 2008.
“Do you hear the news?
“Your brother was taken hostage.”
Logically, Moshe knew his brother and wife probably wouldn’t survive. But another part of him held out hope. “Being a believer, you know, anything could happen. Crazy things could happen. I really believed that they’re going to be saved, some miracle. I was waiting for a miracle to happen.”
While he waited for a miracle, 10 Lashkar-i-Taiba terrorists were fighting to the death in Mumbai. They had arrived quietly at night via boat and began striking the targets mapped by Headley: first the Chhatrapati Shivaji train station, followed by the Taj hotel, the Oberoi hotel, the Leopold Café. And the Chabad House.
It happened after the Holtzbergs and their guests finished dinner, about an hour into the siege of the city. Gavriel called the Israeli consulate:
“The situation is bad.”
The line went dead.
It is not known with certainty what happened in the Chabad House, but it’s likely that Gavriel and Rivka were killed soon after the initial raid.
Moshe being rescued by Sandra Samuel (AP Photo/TV Today, via AP Television)
Their son Moshe, a few days shy of his second birthday, was seen walking amongst his parents’ blood by onlookers peering into the Chabad House’s windows. Some of these onlookers were later shot by the Lashkar militants. Moshe was eventually rescued by his nanny, Sandra Samuel, who was able to hide during the attack.
One of the key tenets of Lashkar-i-Taiba, something that makes the terrorist organization different from, say, Al Qaeda, is its rejection of martyrdom through suicide. Instead, its militants believe in fighting to the death.
This is what the other eight men were doing in Mumbai — except for one 21-year-old militant, who was captured after leaving the train station.
Back at the Chabad House, Yoheved Orpaz, from Israel, and Norma Rabinovich, a Mexican citizen, were being held hostage, their lives bargained for the captured militant.
Indian authorities captured a phone conversation between Norma and Sajid Mir: Mir tells Norma to relax, that she might even be able to celebrate the Sabbath with her family soon.
“Save your energy for good days,” he says.
Later that night, after it was clear a hostage exchange would not occur, Lashkar militants executed both women.
At some point during the standoff, the militants killed two other guests at the Chabad House, Bentzion Chroman and Rabbi Leibish Teitelbaum. Chroman had dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship; Teitelbaum was a U.S. citizen.
Three days after the attacks began, Indian commandos raided the Chabad House from helicopters. Everyone watched from their windows, from the streets.
During the standoff, there was a call between Sajid Mir and a militant named Akasha:
“God protect you,” Mir said. “Did you manage to hit any of their guys?”
“We got one commando. Pray that God will accept my martyrdom.”
“Praise God. Praise God. God keep you.”
Then it was over. The Lashkar militants in the Chabad House were dead.
The outpouring of grief and love reverberated from Israel to Crown Heights.
“For five years, they ran a synagogue and Torah classes, and helped people dealing with drug addiction and poverty,” wrote Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch. “Their selfless love will live on with all the people they touched. We will continue the work they started.”
Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz said in a statement: “The prayers of Brooklynites, New Yorkers and the global community are with the family and loved ones of Rabbi Teitelbaum, as well as those of the Holtzberg family, especially their 2-year-old son, Moshe, in this tragic time.”
Moshe now lives in Israel with his maternal grandparents. Sandra Samuel still cares for him. In a photo accompanying an article about his third birthday, Moshe is seen on his paternal grandfather’s shoulders, sporting half a smile and a curious glance.
“Sometimes he has flashbacks and memories from the time he was in Mumbai,” his maternal grandmother said. “And when they appear they come out amazingly fresh. We freeze when these memories come up and we try to go along with him and support him to open up and share. We reply to him that his parents love him and care for him very much.”
Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg’s families have taken the unprecedented step of filing a wrongful death civil suit against Lashkar-i-Taiba, the ISI and several high-ranking ISI officials, including its director, Ahmed Shuja Pasha. Pakistan, according to CNN, “will ‘strongly contest’ a U.S. court’s attempt to subpoena the country’s top intelligence officials in connection with a lawsuit.” As late as July 2011, lawyers for the ISI urged a judge to throw out the case, arguing that the case could have “disastrous” consequences and fuel instability in a nation vital to America’s fight against al-Qaeda terrorists.” The judge has yet to make a ruling on the viability of the suit.
“We hope to achieve justice, and that the ones responsible for the acts will be prosecuted,” Moshe Holtzberg told Sebastian Rotella. “Doesn’t matter if it’s a government, if it’s an individual, it’s an organization. Those who help terror are like terrorists themselves.”
The only known photo of Sajid Mir
In April 2011, a U.S. federal prosecutors indicted four alleged masterminds of the Mumbai attacks, including Major Iqbal, the man who decided on the Chabad House as a target, and Sajid Mir, Headley’s handler and the voice on the other end of the phone.
Both have yet to be arrested and are most likely in Pakistan. David Coleman Headley pleaded guilty to multiple terrorism charges and is awaiting sentencing in U.S. federal custody at an undisclosed location.
As for the six-story building Gavriel and Rivka called home, Gavriel’s brother Moshe says it has “a bigger meaning now then when my brother and his wife were alive.”
Going forward, the Chabad House will be part-memorial, part-community center for Jewish travelers. It will no longer sleep guests, but there will still be a ritual bath for women, a study hall, a prayer room, an Internet café, a soup kitchen. The fifth floor — his brother’s apartment — will remain untouched.
“This is our answer to terror,” Moshe observed.
Toward the end of his tour of the building with Rotella, Moshe came across a handwritten list of other Chabad Houses in India, with accompanying contact information.
“On the bottom over here it says, ‘This is your house in India.’ And we added Bangalore. Oh wow, it’s my first time actually seeing this, Moshe Holtzberg.”
It’s his name, his Chabad House, written in his brother’s script.
“I haven’t focused on this. I didn’t see it.”
He said he’d keep the note to himself for now, and continued through the house.
For more information about the Chabad House memorial, visit www.mosheholtzberg.org.