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God’s Work


At 9:30, the two men assigned to attack the Chabad House arrive at the gate with their Kalashnikovs, pistols, hand grenades, and bombs. The guard, mysteriously, is gone. A taxi, waiting to take the rabbis to the airport after dinner, speeds away as the shooting begins. It sounds to Sandra like hundreds of explosions; she and Jackie lock themselves into the pantry among the meat freezers and jars of olives and pickles. “Like cowards,” she says later. Gabi, on the phone with the Israeli consulate, says, in Hebrew, “The situation is not good,” and the line goes dead.

Sandra and Jackie spend the night in the pantry. They do not know what is happening in the rest of the house. On Thursday morning around eleven, they hear Moshe crying: Ema! Ema! Not knowing whether the gunmen are still in the building (they are), Sandra dashes upstairs, as Jackie escapes down. She finds the boy standing next to the bodies of his parents—dead or dying, she doesn’t know. She grabs him without thinking and runs as fast as she can into the street. His clothes are spattered with his parents’ blood.

By the time Indian commandos, airdropped into the building, get control of the situation, as Shabbat begins on Friday evening, Gabi, Rivki, Norma, Yocheved, Chorman, and Teitelbaum all are dead. (Daniella Bakayeva decided not to come for dinner after all but took a walk instead.) The timing of the killings, and possible torture, is unclear. According to some reports, someone was still alive as late as Friday morning to wave a prayer shawl from a window. But who was waving, and what did it mean? Was it a gunman, trying to surrender? In transcripts of intercepted phone calls, handlers back in Lahore instruct one of the terrorists to kill the hostages in order to “spoil relations” between India and Israel. “Brother, you have to fight,” they say, as if he were wavering. “This is a matter of the prestige of Islam.”

For months, Moshe has been “very nervous,” Nachman Holtzberg says. “Nobody knows what he knows.” Things that remind him of India—a toy, a visitor—seem to bring it all back, and he wails.

“I waited for you to connect to the Messenger,” says Chani.

Addressing a conference of 2,000 women emissaries at the New York Hilton in February, she is speaking as if it were still November and she could still talk directly to Rivki. “I waited for you to connect to the Messenger so that we could have coffee and a croissant together in front of the screen, as we’ve done for the last four years. A sort of private virtual joke. You prepare the morning pastry on a plate, with a detailed description of taste and texture. And always something different: one day apple pie, one day jelly cookies with cream. I prepare the drinks. In the summer, I would offer you fruit juices, and in the winter, I would roll tea leaves from Dodover Square and Geiyah Bazaar market. I’m waiting for you with the tea, Rivki. Waiting for your cake … But you’re not coming, Rivki, and your tea is getting cold.”

Instant messenger, Facebook, cell phones: The technology that made the Holtzbergs’ life in Mumbai less lonely also helped to explain its end. It is largely because Ismail Khan made the mistake of leaving his satellite phone in the dinghy that we know what we do about the terrorists’ movements; Khan and eight of the others were killed in the fighting. The sole survivor, Muhammad Ajmal Kasab, went on trial last month in Mumbai. His interrogation suggests that the attacks were part of a far broader scheme, some of which fizzled.

As it was, more than 170 people were killed in Mumbai. Many were tourists, enjoying a bite at the Leopold or settling in for an evening at the Oberoi. Others were locals, including doctors in a hospital that was, it seems, attacked as an afterthought.

The Holtzbergs were neither tourists nor locals. They were emissaries from one world to the other. Perhaps it’s more relevant to say they were Jews. In any case, to those who believe they died with the words of the Shema on their lips, their death is but another moment in their lives. What they endured in those last hours—did they know that Moshe escaped alive?—does not invalidate what they enjoyed of life beforehand, and suffered of it, too. Many in the community are therefore torn about discussing “the tragedy.” Some speak anyway, in thousands of posts to Chabad’s website. Others have commemorated the family by naming babies for them; Nachman Holtzberg has reports of 70 new Gabis and 60 new Rivkis—one of them Chani’s daughter, born this month. And others have contributed to the Chabad Mumbai Relief Fund, which will eventually continue the Holtzbergs’ mission.

For Chabad has made it clear that it is not retrenching. In December, the Holtzbergs’ parents flew to Mumbai to light the 25-foot Hanukkah menorah at the Gateway of India and another in front of the ruined house on Hormusji Street. Though no decision has yet been made about the building itself, teams of young rabbis have spent time in the city, teaching and officiating and offering meals at locations that are no longer Googleable. (Security measures have been upgraded at Chabad Houses worldwide.) Rabbi Kantor, in Bangkok, says he has even begun interviewing couples who, unsolicited, have sought to be the next shluchim in Mumbai.


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