Friday, November 27, 2009

Mumbai's Jews : defiant but vulnerable

The spirit is one of defiance in Mumbai's tiny Jewish community on the first anniversary of the savage jihadist murders of six Jews - in India, a country with little history of antisemitism. Rhys Blakely reports for The Times: (with thanks: Lily)

The ten Islamist gunmen who stormed the city a year ago today were told by their handlers in Pakistan that the lives of Jews were worth 50 times those of Gentiles. The wreckage of the only Jewish target — a centre that had offered visiting Jews kosher food, prayer and a place to sleep — bears witness to their ruthlessness.

Bullet marks still pock the wall where the bodies of Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his pregnant wife, Rivka, the young couple who ran Nariman House, were found. Halfway up the central stairwell a grenade has blown away the side of the building. Shrapnel has left deep scars in the masonry. Some rooms are almost untouched while others have been obliterated by automatic gunfire. Not a single window remained intact.

Amid the rubble there are reminders that this was a family home. Crayon notches mark a door frame where Rivka had recorded the height of her son Moshe, 2, who survived, rescued by his Indian nanny. On the floor the couple had made their living quarters, the Holtzbergs’ shoes remain neatly stacked in a rack.

“This was a beautiful, vibrant place,” said Shloime Coleman, 22, a rabbinical student from Stamford Hill, London, one of many who volunteered to come to Mumbai after the attacks to help continue the work of the ChabadLubavitch movement, the Hasidic organisation that ran Nariman House. “It was turned upside down.”

The five-storey building became a war zone after two terrorists, named by police as Abu Umar and Babar Imaran, broke in at about 9.45pm, armed with AK47 assault rifles and grenades. The following dawn a squad of elite commandos were sent in to flush them out and save the hostages inside — an operation that would stretch for two terrifying days and end in failure.

Six foreigners, all Jews, were murdered in the house and three Indians were killed outside. Altogether 166 victims died in the Mumbai attacks, which have been blamed on the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba terrorist group.

A year on, the spirit at Nariman House is one of defiance. Rabbi Avraham Berkowitz, 33, the New Yorker sent to rehabilitate the centre in the wake of the atrocity, says there was never any doubt that his organisation would continue to have a presence in Mumbai.

“The attacks left a hole in our lives,” he said. “It will take time and patience to heal but we are standing in the front line against the War on Terror. We have a way of life that sanctifies life above everything. They do not.”

No decision has yet been made about whether Chabad-Lubavitch will move back into its former home. It is possible that another site will be chosen and its location kept low-key. Either way it is certain that tight new security systems will be put into place.

Mumbai’s Jews, who number only about 5,000 in a city of 18 million people, are a vulnerable speck in the cosmopolitan whirl. Scattered around Mumbai, however, are relics to show how they helped to build India’s commercial capital. For more than a century the most important has been the Keneseth Eliyahoo Synagogue. A grand colonial building in the heart of Mumbai’s financial district, its flaking turquoise fa├žade stands testimony to how a handful of Jews helped to shape modern India.

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