Following a moving visit with the shluchim to Mumbai, Ami Magazine’s Shloime Zionce shares their story of rebuilding and resilience.
By Shloime Zionce for Ami Magazine
When I arrived at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport, I was expecting it to be overcrowded; after all, India is the second most populous country in the world. But while it was very busy, it wasn’t unbearably so. Perhaps the fact that it was three in the morning had something to do with it.
“Nice hair!” the official at passport control said, referring to my peyos. I’ve gotten used to people in Asia complimenting me on my long and curly peyos. It happens very often. “What’s your hat called?” he then asked, pointing to my yarmulke.
“It’s a kippah,” I replied.
“Oh, like Yom Kippah!” he said with a grin, proudly showing off his extensive knowledge of the Jewish religion to his passport control buddies.
“Sort of,” I responded, biting my lips to stop myself from laughing.
But he wasn’t done. “Do you celebrate the Yom Kippah festival?”
“It takes place every October,” he informed his friends, who had nothing else to do because the line for foreigners was empty except for me. “Also, the Yom Kippah War was very famous.” Eventually, after fingerprinting me and asking a few basic questions, this font of Jewish knowledge stamped my passport and welcomed me to India. It was my first visit to the country.
The humidity that hit me on the other side of the automatic doors was quite memorable. Within less than a minute I was sweating. The first thing I noticed was that people were sleeping everywhere—on the ground, on benches, curled up in corners or in any other place they could find some square footage.
It took me forever to find my Uber, but that’s a story for another time. When I finally did manage to find the guy, the trunk of his car was too small to accommodate my suitcase, which was also quite small. I tried to fit it into the backseat, but there was hardly enough space there either, even though the car had five seats. Most of the other vehicles I noticed were also tiny.
The ride from the airport to the city was very eventful. Driving in India is not for the faint of heart—or for anyone, actually. Traffic lights, stop signs, lanes and even the direction in which one is supposed to drive on a given street mean absolutely nothing. The entire road system is one gigantic moving violation. We must have had 50 near-death experiences before we got to my hotel. If you think I’m exaggerating, just Google “driving in India.”
As soon as I checked in, I plopped into bed. When I woke up, I headed out onto Main Bazaar Road, which is a hub for all the backpackers visiting New Delhi. The heat makes you feel like you’re in an oven and the streets stink, making the heat even more difficult to contend with. Stationed all along this crazy road are vendors selling anything you can think of, and some things you would prefer not to think of. Street food is in abundance. Some of it smells fine, but most of it doesn’t. Cars, motorbikes, rickshaws, trucks and pedestrians wiggle their way through the always-too-narrow thoroughfare, and the occasional cow appears out of nowhere, bringing all traffic to a halt. The mix of colors, sounds and smells can be overwhelming even to the most seasoned traveler. People bustle about with great intensity, looking like they’re on a mission—except for those who are sleeping on the side of the road, of course.
The poverty is plain to see. There are beggars all over, many of whom have horrible deformities. Unable to work, they must depend on the mercy of foreign tourists who might have some spare change. It is impossible not to have pity on them.
Approximately half a mile from my hotel I found New Delhi’s Chabad House, where I would be spending Shabbos in the company of dozens of backpackers and a handful of businessmen. I had a nice Shabbos, but I’m not going to lie—I was asleep for much of it thanks to jet lag. On Sunday morning I left India and returned to New Delhi on Wednesday afternoon. The following day I took a flight to Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, where I remained for the next three days.
Even before landing, I was able to learn a lot about the city from my window. There is a massive disparity between the lifestyles of the poor and the super-rich, and skyscrapers jut out from the slums. A large percentage of the homes are covered with blue tarps, a sign that many can’t even afford to fix their roofs—and boy, does it rain in Mumbai!
My Uber driver insisted on taking me to see the home of billionaire Mukesh Ambani, the richest man in India, who is famous for building a 27-story mansion with very high ceilings, which he named Antilla. It is thought to be the second most valuable residential property in the world, after Buckingham Palace. It boasts hundreds of rooms, sleeping space for 600 staff members, three helipads and a six-story parking garage with space for 168 cars. Although we weren’t able to get anywhere near the building, we could see it from the street, and it certainly was eyebrow-raising.
After checking in at my hotel, I headed straight to the Chabad House, which is only a few blocks away. The streets of Mumbai are much cleaner than those of New Delhi and give a much better impression of India. Along the way I met some Israeli tourists, and I also passed a jewelry stand selling swastika necklaces. If they were being sold anywhere else, they would evoke outrage, but in this part of the world the swastika is considered a symbol of good luck.
After making a left turn off the main street onto a smaller one, the famous—or infamous—building came into view, one that many people around the world recognize instantly for all the wrong reasons. Topped by its signature menorah, the six-story Nariman House dominated the street. I stood there for a moment frozen in place. This was where it had all happened. Then I approached the building, which was heavily fortified and surrounded by security personnel around the clock.
After I was admitted inside, I made my way upstairs to the restaurant, which was empty. I was soon greeted by Rebbetzin Kozlovsky, who welcomed me and asked me a little about myself. I then ordered a few things from the menu; the food was superb and cost next to nothing by Western standards. I later learned that most of the restaurant’s patrons were businessmen who preferred to have their food delivered to hotels and offices, which explained why I was the only person there.
After I finished eating, I headed up another flight of stairs to the shul. I wasn’t prepared for what came next. As soon as I entered the room, I noticed a gigantic memorial plaque reaching from floor to ceiling, with an inscription indicating that this was the spot where Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, Hy”d, was killed. Just below the plaque there were a few large bullet holes in the concrete wall, thought to have been responsible for killing him. In another part of the room, a sign described what happened on that fateful night, along with the names of those who were killed. As I stood there taking it all in, I heard footsteps approaching from behind.
In walked an Indian man, whom I assumed worked for the Chabad House, and he noticed that I was studying the plaque. “Have you seen the books and the ark?” he asked. I had no idea what he was talking about. He introduced himself as Sachin and told me that he was the manager of the Chabad House. He then led me to a bookcase and pointed out a bullet hole in one of the sefarim, a Shulchan Aruch. He removed it along with the next few volumes on the shelf and opened them up, showing me how a single bullet had gone through all of them.
He then took me over to the aron kodesh and pointed out another tiny bullet hole on its left side. One bullet even entered the aron kodesh and went through a sefer Torah. Sachin offered to take me on a tour of the rest of the Chabad House, and I took him up on it. I could tell that he was very sincere and really cared about this place.
We went upstairs to where the guest rooms used to be, and the place was completely riddled with bullet holes. There was even a huge hole in the middle of one wall, apparently made by a rocket-propelled grenade. The floor right above it had been the Holtzbergs’ apartment. Sachin took me into Moishe Holtzberg’s nursery, which had a wall that his mother, Rivky, Hy”d, had decorated for him. When I saw the name Moishe, along with the letters of the alef-beis that the late rebbetzin had lovingly painted, my eyes welled up with tears. It was hard not to cry thinking about how her life was cut short by depraved savages.
On the way out of the room, Sachin showed me a horizontal line on the wall indicating how tall Moishe was before the attack. He then pointed to another line much higher up. “This one was drawn by Prime Minister Netanyahu when he visited here,” he said. “That’s how tall Moishe was when he returned to Mumbai.”
Sachin excitedly showed me a photo he took with “baby Moishe.” It was obvious that he took great pride in it. Before we completed the tour, we went to the rooftop terrace, where there was a beautiful memorial commemorating the 26/11 attacks, which in India is considered as serious as 9/11. (In many countries, the day of the month is written first; 26/11 refers to November 26, 2008, the day the attacks began.) A number of plaques on the walls explained the timeline of the events and honored the names of the 174 victims.
On our way down to the ground floor, Sachin looked out a window and directed my attention to an alleyway that was also riddled with bullet holes. Each hole was marked with a description of the weapon that had made it. The majority were made by AK-47s. Above the bullet holes, a message was painted on the wall: “We will never forget the attacks of 26/11.”
The next morning I headed out to the street, where I had met a tailor the previous day who claimed he could sew me a custom-made suit in six hours for $150. At that price, I was willing to risk it. And while it actually took him seven hours to complete, I must say that I was happy with his work. It was made from scratch on Friday and was ready before Shabbos.
Rabbi Yisroel Kozlovsky greeted me with a warm handshake as I entered the shul on Friday evening. “How are you, Shloime?” he asked. I immediately took a liking to him. He was young, energetic and full of spunk.
The davening in Mumbai was nothing short of spectacular. It isn’t often that I daven in a shul where people were killed al kiddush Hashem. Although it was the site of a terrible tragedy, it was impossible not to feel the happiness in the air. I felt euphoric during Lecha Dodi; perhaps it’s because we are hard-wired to appreciate the light after experiencing the darkness. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who felt this aura. There was lots of spontaneous dancing. I’m accustomed to being in Chabad Houses where people dance, but most of the people in the room were older businessmen, and it seemed as if they all had springs in their shoes.
Davening was followed by a multi-course meal in the ballroom, located on another floor. Before Kiddush, Rabbi Kozlovsky got up and welcomed all the guests, who probably numbered around 40. When we sat down to eat, I got to know many of the other guests, Jews from all over the world, some of whom I am still in contact with.
We stayed up and sang Shabbos songs until the wee hours of the morning, and the next day we got together for a shiur in Tanya before davening, followed by another memorable meal. That afternoon there was a huge thunderstorm, so I stayed in the Chabad House all day farbrenging and learning with Rabbi Kozlovsky and some of the guests. When Shabbos was over, Rabbi Kozlovsky invited me to his house, where we had a wide-ranging discussion about Chabad of Mumbai and its history.
“Shabbos was beautiful,” I told him. “It was definitely one of the most special Shabbasos I’ve had at a Chabad House. Could you share some of the challenges you’ve had to deal with?”
“One of them is that there really aren’t many Israelis living here,” Rabbi Kozlovsky said. “In Bangkok, Singapore, Shanghai and other Westernized Asian cities, there are plenty of Israeli expats, which means that you have the nucleus of a community. Here, there are only a few.”
“Why is that?” I asked.
“It’s very hard to live in Mumbai. You get sensory overload. People come here for two or three years, make their money and then go home. Bangkok has Jews who have lived there for decades, and the community now consists of 150 families. In Mumbai, there are six or seven families attached to the Israeli consulate and maybe five or ten more. That’s it.
“What’s unique about Mumbai is that there is also a fairly large community of Indian Jews. Then we get businessmen who come through here from time to time, as well as tourists and backpackers. All of which means that I have to wear several different hats.
“A shliach in a typical town in America has his community. A shliach like Rabbi Nechemia Wilhelm in Bangkok has backpackers, while Rabbi Yosef Chaim Kantor deals with the traveling businessmen there. I have to interact with all of these different kinds of people. That means that I can’t have a single event for all of them, because each group requires a different approach. A backpacker is happy with a simple meal of matzah and chicken soup, whereas a businessman needs to be hosted properly and be served a multi-course meal.”
“I noticed that in your restaurant, the fish is more expensive than the chicken. I guess that’s because it’s harder to get.”
“Correct. Chicken is much cheaper because I shecht it myself.”
The rabbi then moved on to other community issues. “The makeup of the community also affects our school. It took a few years for my wife to come up with a curriculum that would work for both the local children and the foreigners. In the beginning we tried to do joint events, like the Purim party, but we eventually realized that it couldn’t work because they literally don’t speak the same language.
“Then there’s the financial challenge. Even though we’re in India, where everything seems to be very cheap, there are still major expenses. For example, our rent for this apartment is $2,300 a month.”
“It’s a very good location,” I remarked. “I can see the Taj Mahal Hotel down the block.”
“Yes, but I don’t really have much of a choice.”
“Why doesn’t anyone live in the Nariman House?”
“We’re turning the part of the building where the Holtzbergs lived into a museum,” he explained.
“Who came up with the concept?”
“What’s your yearly budget?” I was curious about the financial aspect of this situation.
“Approximately $650,000,” he replied.
“Is the building paid off?”
“Yes, but we still have to pay for maintenance and other expenditures. We also have the mikvah, the new Jewish day school and the Chabad center that was just opened in the nearby suburb of Thane.”
“The Nariman House is very impressive.”
“Without going into specifics, with the help of Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky [vice chairman of Merkos L’Inyonei Chinuch and director of the International Conference of Chabad-Lubavitch Emissaries] and the extremely generous Mr. George Rohr, we were able to put a lot of money into it. Mr. Rohr also forgave the loan for the purchase of the original building.”
“It’s probably the most secure Chabad House in the world. There’s more security there than in your average embassy.”
“This really isn’t a dangerous area, but after what happened, we had to do it,” he said.
“Let’s get back to the challenges of running this place,” I suggested.
“In addition to everything else, we also have the typical obstacles faced by most shluchim—obtaining kosher food, lack of friends, day-to-day management. But the biggest challenge was getting people to understand that my wife and I aren’t here to be the new Gabi and Rivky. We aren’t trying to fill their shoes. They were extraordinary, exceptional people. I didn’t know them personally, but I don’t think that many other people would have been able to handle what they did, and I’m not even talking about their deaths—I’m talking about their lives.
“The whole time they were here carrying out their shlichus, they were also flying back and forth to visit their children who were hospitalized in Israel with Tay-Sachs. There’s a diamond dealer in Mumbai who became a baal teshuvah thanks to the Holtzbergs. He told me that he never saw them without a smile on their faces. They missed the levayah of their oldest son because he passed away on a Friday and had to be buried before Shabbos. Their second son passed away on the day of their shloshim.
“Their whole lives were not of this world. After the attacks, when ZAKA opened the aron kodesh, they discovered that a bullet had made a hole in one of the sifrei Torah right in the center of Acharei Mos—that sefer Torah had last been used on Yom Kippur—two lines after the words ‘b’karvasam lifnei Hashem vayamusu,’” Rabbi Kozlovsky said in amazement.
“I knew there was a hole in the sefer Torah because Sachin told me, but I didn’t know where it was. I enjoyed his tour very much,” I commented.
“He’s very earnest and sincere. We’re so fortunate to have found him. He’s also very dedicated and proactive. A month before our second Shavuos in India he told me, ‘It’s almost Shavuos. We have to discuss how we’re going to set everything up.’ He lives in the Chabad House. He has his own room.”
“Tell me how you came to India in the first place,” I urged.
“Well, before coming to any decision, we obviously had to come for a visit from Israel to check it out,” he said. “But even that wasn’t so simple. My wife was teaching in a government school, so it was very hard for her to take off from work. When she told the principal that she wanted to go away for a few days, the principal said that she could have Friday off, but she would have to be back in school on Sunday morning. This meant that she would have only two days in Mumbai to form an impression of the place, while I stayed in India for another week. I had to take her to the airport on Motzaei Shabbos so she could get back in time.
“The following week, Rabbi Kantor flew to Israel from Bangkok to discuss the offer with us. We were living in a very small apartment, so my wife suggested that we meet in her father’s house in Ramat Shlomo, which is bigger. Rabbi Kantor came for brunch, and my father-in-law, who had no idea that we were considering moving to Mumbai, was sitting in the kitchen eating his own meal. Rabbi Kantor spoke to us for about an hour, and we asked him a lot of questions. At the end of the meeting, we told him that we would think about it.
“After he left, we went into the kitchen to talk to my father-in-law. My mother-in-law had passed away six months before we got married and my wife was expecting his first grandchild, so we weren’t sure how he would take it. But as soon as we walked in, he said, ‘Are you crazy? Call him right now and tell him you’re ready to go.’ My mother, in contrast, took it very hard. As soon as she heard about it, she burst into tears.”
“Because she was scared?”
“It’s unfortunate that people now think of Mumbai as a dangerous place because of what happened,” I noted.
“It’s really not dangerous at all, but that’s what people think. And my father-in-law was immediately on board. When people talk about shlichus, they focus on the mesiras nefesh of the shluchim, but they don’t talk about their families back home,” he pointed out.
“I’m sure it’s also hard for the shluchim themselves to be far away from family and friends. There’s usually no support group.”
“That depends on where you are,” he replied.
“It seems to me that Mumbai is a special project for Merkos.”
“They’ve helped us from day one, including the reconstruction of the building. Rabbi Kotlarsky truly cares about shluchim like us who are living in remote locations. Still, our budget has increased sixfold since we got here, and covering it is always a struggle. But we see constant miracles, and we know that having bitachon is all that’s really needed.”
“I would imagine that it gets lonely sometimes,” I wondered.
“When you’re in a place like this, your life has a different meaning. Someone who’s on shlichus in a ‘normal’ place might have to remind himself occasionally that he’s there for shlichus, but I would never live here if I wasn’t a shliach, so I never have to remind myself. That’s a very big advantage. People don’t understand the sacrifices. When you’re on your own for Simchas Torah, or even if you do have a minyan, you’re still missing out. When you have to be on your own for Kol Nidrei…
“Even though my parents and in-laws weren’t shluchim—my father is a 12th-generation Yerushalmi—there was never a question that that’s what we would do. I never saw myself doing anything other than being a shliach of the Rebbe. I have a similar challenge when it comes to educating my children. They certainly don’t have the same lifestyle as regular kids growing up in a frum community. The challenge is raising them to feel fortunate rather than deprived. It’s not just a responsibility, it’s a zechus.
“Living here is still very hard for my wife and me. It still doesn’t feel completely natural. Last year we went to Israel for a couple of weeks to attend a wedding. When we got back to India, it was the height of summer, when there’s a terrible stench in the streets. It was very depressing, and even more so because there were few guests, which always happens in the summertime. Every time we go away, it can take us a couple of months to get back to ourselves.
“It’s hard for people to understand what it’s like for us. They don’t understand the price we pay; it’s just kind of accepted that we’re here. It’s not like we do it for kavod or money; the only motivation is to be a shliach.
“Anyway, we had just gotten back to India and we were feeling down, especially after we learned that our electricity had been turned off for non-payment, meaning that all our food in the refrigerator and freezer had spoiled. It had been so nice to be in Israel, spending time with our families and not feeling that heavy weight of responsibility. We were still on our way back from the airport when I turned to my wife and said, ‘Do you think we should just turn around and make a U-turn?’
“Then I turned to my daughter and asked her if she was happy to be back in India. ‘Of course, I’m happy,’ she replied. I asked her why she was happy. After all, she had just had so much fun playing with her cousins and having whatever kind of nosh she wanted. ‘Because this is where I belong,’ she explained simply.
“It made me realize that many of the things my wife and I find difficult are accepted as natural by the children. For example, I still feel bad that we can never have a Shabbos meal like a regular family, where I can give my children all my attention and ask them what they learned that week. I can’t do that when I have dozens of guests at the table.”
“Have you ever had a Shabbos when you felt that you just couldn’t do it?” I inquired.
“No. When Shabbos comes, everything else falls away, even if I’m under a lot of stress.”
“I don’t know how you do it,” I told him honestly.
“Look, this is what we’re raised for. Every song in camp is about shlichus. The shluchim are our heroes. Yes, it’s difficult at times, but you don’t see it that way when that’s what you’ve always wanted to do.”
“Okay, but I would imagine that it’s still demanding.”
“You don’t have stress in your life?” he asked me, turning the tables.
“I do, but it’s my own stress, not a whole city’s!”
“I don’t see it that way. When I was a bachur I decided, ‘If everyone has stress, then I might as well go on shlichus and at least have stress while doing what the Rebbe wanted.’ But it’s not as if it’s a choice between living an idyllic life or being on shlichus. Everyone has struggles. We all have our avodas Hashem wherever we are.”
“Do you feel an extra responsibility because of the terror attack?” I asked.
“Of course. Every time I walk into the Chabad House, I see the bullet holes and feel Gabi looking at me…
“By the way, I just want to mention that my wife is in charge of all the peulos. I’m the rabbi, but she’s the director.”
“Tell me more about the museum. Are you going to charge admission?” I asked, thinking that it might offer financial respite.
“Yes, but only a nominal fee,” he replied. “But I really believe that the museum is our special mission. This is a place where shluchim were killed al kiddush Hashem, which means that it is precisely here that we must bring our message, which is to encourage people to keep the Sheva Mitzvos Bnei Noach. The Rebbe spent countless hours talking about the Sheva Mitzvos, and this is a place that can help those ideas resonate in people’s minds.”
“India is a land of tremendous avodah zarah,” I noted.
“Yes, and that’s why it needs something like this the most. I feel that this is our purpose in being here after what happened. Every yeridah must have an aliyah after it, and the aliyah will be spreading awareness of Hashem in this country.”
“I noticed that in your press conference when Moishe Holtzberg was visiting, as well as in your speech last night, you made a point of addressing the people of India. You don’t usually hear shluchim addressing the general public.”
“As shluchim, it’s our job to be involved in everything that affects the region, including reaching out to the non-Jews and teaching them about Hashem and the Sheva Mitzvos. We have a broad mission that isn’t just for Jews, which is why the Rebbe spoke so much about it. Every creature in this world has a mission to carry out, and it is our responsibility to influence everyone to do so for the benefit of their community and the world.
“Whenever a farbrengen was televised, the Rebbe made it a point to devote at least one sichah to the Sheva Mitzvos. Of course, it’s a sensitive subject that needs to be dealt with very carefully, but before I decided to go in that direction with the museum, I spoke to a lot of rabbanim who urged me to go ahead because it’s so necessary.”
“You’ve become very famous,” I said. “Every Indian I’ve spoken to feels some sort of connection to the Chabad House.”
“We are tragically connected. I want to show you something, because there’s a line in it that’s very important.” Rabbi Kozlovsky began looking for a video on his phone. “While the siege was going on, the Indian government was recording the conversations between the terrorists and their commander in Pakistan. In the recordings, the commander tells the terrorist in the Chabad House, ‘Every person you kill there is worth 50 people who are killed elsewhere.’”
“So they were davka looking to attack the Chabad House.”
“Yes, but when you think about it, it doesn’t make any sense. Not that it makes sense when it happens in Poway, but why Mumbai? It seems like such an odd choice.
“Incidentally, after the Holtzbergs were here for a couple of years, the building they were operating out of was sold and they needed to move. A short time later Gabi called Rabbi Kantor in Bankok—he’s a member of the board of the Chabad of India Trust—and asked him to come see the building he was about to buy. ‘What’s the rush to buy?’ Rabbi Kantor wanted to know. ‘You’ve only been here two years.’ Gabi explained that he’d searched and searched but couldn’t find a place to rent, so he took it as a siman that he had to buy his own space.
“Rabbi Kantor flew in, and Gabi showed him the Nariman House. Rabbi Kantor told him that it looked very good. He also told him that it looked very secure because it wasn’t on a main street, which would reduce the risk of car bombs and the like. He later said that he had no idea why such a thing would even have entered his mind.”
“Rabbi Wilhelm from Bangkok once told me that the attack changed his whole outlook,” I commented.
“It’s true,” he replied. “I was in Guatemala a short time after the attack, and every Friday afternoon the shliach would block the road in front of his Chabad House until after Shabbos. Everyone was more concerned about security after what happened. But I honestly feel safer here than I do walking the streets of Brooklyn.”
“I noticed that there’s a police car parked outside.”
“Yes. We have many layers of security, some that are visible and some that aren’t.”
“And it’s provided by the government?”
“Yes. Before the attack, the government didn’t really think about Judaism and Jews very much, but after the attacks—and especially now with the current government, which is very pro-Israel—things have really changed. There’s much more of an understanding, and when the museum opens next year, even more Indians will come into contact with the Chabad House. As soon as they walk in, they’re going to hear a presentation about Jews and the Rebbe and the concept of shluchim to prepare them for what they’re about to see. From there, the elevator will take them to the terrace on the sixth floor, then to Gabi and Rivky’s apartment on the fifth floor, and then down to the fourth floor.”
“Is that where the big hole in the wall is?”
“Yes. The first time we walked into the building seven years ago, there were still blood stains on the walls. You can imagine how our hearts were pounding when we went upstairs. I suddenly got a flashback to where I was when the siege began. I was in my brother’s house using his computer, and I kept refreshing the page, hoping to see an update that the miracle we were waiting for had happened. The idea that shluchim could be killed seemed impossible. Especially after little Moishe came out, we were sure it was only a matter of time. Now I was in the same building where it had happened. As soon as we saw the upstairs, we knew that we would never be able to live there, but we wanted to do something that would capture that initial feeling.
“The sixth floor, which will be the second stop for visitors, is going to have a short explanation about the attacks and the various locations around the city where they took place. It’s also going to be the first place in India to list all the names of the victims. We want it to be just like the 9/11 memorial in New York.
“Afterward, they’ll go down to the Holtzbergs’ apartment. This is what it’s going to look like.” He showed me an artist’s rendering, which looked very minimalistic. “The idea is that we’re going to use the walls to explain the Rebbe’s ten mivtza’im [mitzvah campaigns], as experienced through the Holtzbergs’ living quarters. You’re basically going to be passing through the lives of Gabi and Rivky.”
“What about Moishe’s room?” I asked.
“We’re going to keep that as is, but the main focus is the messages, not the apartment.”
“Who came up with the design?”
“We hired a museum design specialist.”
“What’s the idea behind the white walls?”
“Two things. One is that white is associated with purity. The other is that it prevents you from being distracted by your surroundings.”
“After that they’ll go down to the fourth floor?”
“Yes. That’s where the hole was blown through the wall. The idea is to create a feeling that you’re walking into the room five minutes after the attack and can still smell the aftermath of the explosions. We want people to feel the shock when they walk in. The next room has a map of Mumbai, and each screen will show a different site that was attacked, along with visuals and audio. The next room is going to have memorials to other terror attacks around the world.
“In India, a lot of people don’t understand that terror is a symptom of the larger battle of darkness versus light. It’s not uncommon for them to think that it’s just Pakistan versus India, or Muslims versus Hindus. By connecting this museum to other attacks, it will send the message that everything is interrelated.
“The next room will be completely dark and gradually light up, teaching the concept that a little light can dispel a great amount of darkness. Each projector will show a different one of the Sheva Mitzvos. The tour will then conclude in a room that is completely bright. You won’t be able to distinguish between the walls, ceiling and floor. There will also be positive messages and pesukim from the Torah, which is meant to be the opposite of the dark room that was caused by the terror.
“The purpose of the museum is not to portray history. We’re not interested in history, per se. We’re just making use of it so that each visitor who comes here will leave as a changed person. If it’s a Jew, that means accepting at least one of the mitzvah campaigns. If it’s a non-Jew, it means accepting the Sheva Mitzvos.”
“Why don’t you have a room for people to make positive resolutions?” I suggested.
“We’re planning on doing that. We’re also going to incorporate some kind of social media aspect so they can report on their progress and spread the word. We may be crazy to be thinking on such a grandiose level, but we live in a crazy world. What happened here wasn’t normal, so that’s the way we have to combat it.
“In the early ’60s there was a terrible earthquake in Morocco that destroyed entire cities. There were several Lubavitcher schools in Morocco, and many teachers and students were killed. The Rebbe said that we had to make sure that wherever there was one teacher, there would be many teachers, and wherever there was one talmid, there would be many talmidim. And the Rebbe said the same about the buildings.
“That’s the Jewish response to tragedies. Just restoring the Chabad House to the way it was would be very nice, but that’s not the answer to terror. Everyone associates this building with the darkness of what happened. Now we have to bring the light from this building to the entire world.
“After Poway, there was a big focus on instituting a moment of silence in schools. As the Rebbe explained, the idea is that it teaches children to stop and think about Hashem and their mission in this world. We’re trying to do the same thing, but we’re also illustrating what actually happens when evil takes over, which is terrorism. We hope that the visitors will then come to the realization that they have a responsibility and are capable of making a change.
“This is all based on the Rambam in Hilchos Teshuvah. The Rambam says that a person should see himself and the whole world as half zakai and half chayav. If he does one aveirah, he brings destruction to himself and the world. If he does one mitzvah, he tips the scales to the side of zechus and brings salvation and rescue. In one sichah, the Rebbe added that not only does the person bring salvation for himself and the entire world, he also does so for all the neshamos of the previous generations. This means that all of creation throughout history is dependent on your one single action right now!” he concluded with passion.
“When is the projected opening date?”
“We still have a few more hurdles to overcome. We estimate that we still need another $200,000 to $300,000, after which it will take about a year and a half to complete.”
“Were the bullets in the shul the ones that killed Gabi?” I asked, trying to make sense of what I saw.
“That’s where he was found, but no one knows for sure. It’s believed that the terrorists broke into the building, ran into the shul and opened fire. Rabbi Teitelbaum was found on the doorstep, so it’s assumed that he ran in when he heard the noise. He was shot at point-blank range. Gabi then probably came out of his office, and they shot him right there. Rivky was found next to the sofas.
“Have you seen the video of little Moishe walking back and forth on the second floor?” He was referring to a famous video that was captured by a TV camera outside the Chabad House.
I had seen it, and I asked him if he was still in touch with Moishe.
“We became friends when he visited here, and I see him whenever I’m in Israel,” he replied.
“It really doesn’t make sense that Moishe was able to get out,” I said.
“It was a miracle. He was sleeping in his crib, and when the noise woke him up, he climbed out to look for his parents.”
“How many terrorists entered the building?”
“And they were killed in the raid?”
“Didn’t the Israelis offer to step in?” I asked.
“They did,” he said, “but no government in the world would allow foreign forces to intervene in a situation like this. Unfortunately, the Indian commando raid wasn’t successful.”
“I understand that the security detail from the Israeli Consulate came running over when they heard what was happening.”
“Yes. Rivky had called the consulate to tell them that she heard gunshots. The chief of security grabbed one of his people and came right over, but the locals thought that they were more terrorists rushing to the scene, so they beat them up and handed them over to the police.
“There was also an Israeli diamond dealer named David Bialka, who was sleeping on the third floor of the Chabad House. After the noise woke him up, he climbed out the window and down the outside of the building. But the locals also mistook him for a terrorist and attacked him before hauling him off to the police station. The next day, when the consul general went to the jail to get his staff members out, he heard this other Israeli screaming and managed to get him released. He flew back to Israel, but he had to be hospitalized for a really long time.
“The first time I came to Mumbai, I went to the diamond exchange and started looking for Israelis. Someone called me over and asked if I knew who he was. I said no. ‘My name is David Bialka,’ he replied. ‘Now do you know who I am?’ It still didn’t sound familiar, so he said, ‘I’m the guy who was in the Chabad House at the beginning of the terror attack. It took me all this time to muster up the courage to return to India.’”
“Did he ever come back to the Chabad House?” I asked.
“No. I invited him once, but he told me that he had no intention of ever going back there.”
“When did ZAKA come in?” I asked.
“The day after the attack started.”
“That was before Shabbos?”
“Yes, but ZAKA was only allowed in on Friday night because the Indian Army wanted to clean up the place first. There was a big fight to make sure that the bodies weren’t autopsied.
“One of the most disturbing things about what happened is that the terrorists were getting their orders in real time from a controller in Pakistan who was sitting and watching the news feeds so he could tell them what to do. The Indian authorities knew that they were communicating with someone in Pakistan, and they tapped the calls.
“I met the person who was in charge of the operation at the Chabad House. I asked him when he learned that the terrorists inside the building knew exactly what was happening outside. He told me that he only found out about it after he got home. He was bringing in helicopters and trying all kinds of different tactics, but they knew everything that was happening because the media insisted on broadcasting live.”
I asked him if Moishe remembers anything about the attack.
“No,” he said, shaking his head.
“I noticed that you have a son named Gabi.”
“Of course,” he replied. It was obvious that Rabbi Kozlovsky was living with the Holtzbergs every minute of the day. “My son’s bris was right around their yahrtzeit, about a year and a half after we reopened the building.”
Our conversation had come to an end. The rabbi showed me to the door and we hugged each other. From the corner of my eye, I could see Gabi and Rivky smiling at us from a big framed photo hanging on the wall. I pointed to the picture, and Rabbi Kozlovsky followed my finger, his eyes wide. He then looked away from the picture and opened the door for me.
“Regular people would never be able to survive in this crazy place,” he said.
“Doesn’t that say something about you and your rebbetzin?” I countered.
He thought about it for a minute and smiled, his eyes sparkling with mystery. My message had hit home.