By Allison Hoffman, Jerusalem Post correspondent in NY
Within minutes of seeing the first televised reports of explosions in Mumbai, officials at Chabad’s worldwide headquarters began placing calls to the Nariman House to reach Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, 29, and his wife, Rivka, 26, to activate the organization’s standard emergency response plan to help local Jews affected by the attacks.
“We couldn’t reach them, but we thought it’s an emergency, so maybe he went out to help someone – it’s totally normal not to reach them in a case like this,” said Chabad’s online development director, Dovid Zaklikowski.
As Wednesday afternoon faded into evening, Zaklikowski and his colleagues called a satellite center Holtzberg recently established in Goa. They reached a Jewish woman who knew the Holtzbergs. She had been able to reach a consular official, who had spoken to Holtzberg and been told that “the situation was very bad,” Zaklikowski said.
All at once, bits and pieces of information from television reports, calls to government officials and e-mail alerts began to congeal into an awful picture: The Holtzbergs and an unknown number of others had been taken hostage inside their own building. Some reports had the couple unconscious or worse; nothing could be confirmed.
The attack on Chabad’s own emissary was unprecedented, Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin, a Chabad spokesman, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
Within hours, an Indian Jew who knew the Holtzbergs had arrived at the warren of offices in Brooklyn’s Crown Heights neighborhood, ready to work the phones. A rotating cast of volunteers came in to pray, watch Internet Web streams, and surf the Web for any scrap of news.
“At any point there was the possibility of real information coming forward, and that took precedence, but we were also quashing rumors,” Shmotkin told the Post.
In the first hours of the crisis, he urged the Post’s readers to “pray that we should hear good news,” as dozens of Indian commandoes surrounded the five-story building, where heavy curtains hung behind windows broken by gunfire. Outside the center, thousands of people stood in the narrow alleyways watching the standoff.
The gunmen stormed the building Wednesday night during a series of coordinated attacks across the seaside city that killed at least 100 people. A group of suspected Muslim terrorists claimed responsibility.
Shmotkin said the gunmen seized a police vehicle, which allowed them access to the area around the Chabad House, which serves as an education center and synagogue and offers drug prevention services.
Joshua Runyan, news editor of the Chabad.org/news Web site, told the Post in the early hours of Thursday morning, Jerusalem time, that there had been “several reports that shots were fired in the vicinity of the Chabad House, and unconfirmed reports on CNN of casualties in the Nariman House.”
Nariman House, Runyan said, was the original name of the Chabad House, which was purchased two years ago.
Runyan, who is currently in Jerusalem, said that a friend of the rabbi’s had received an e-mail from Holtzberg, unrelated to the attacks, at around the time of the attacks or shortly before they began, but that there had been no further contact.
“Since then, we’ve been trying all the numbers,” he said.
Indian news agencies reported that three people were killed in or close to the Chabad House. The dead were not hostages, the reports said.
Phone calls by the Post to the Chabad House and to the Holtzbergs went unanswered late Wednesday night and into Thursday. Friends placed messages on various Internet sites appealing for information.
Israel Radio reported that Israeli consular officials were visiting local hospitals.
Runyan said the Chabad House was a popular tourist destination and that “Israelis regularly come by and visit.”
In New York, midnight passed before word came that the Holtzbergs’ toddler son Moshe had been rushed from the house in the arms of one of the Chabad House’s employees, Sandra Samuel.
Meanwhile, in Brooklyn, young Lubavitchers sitting in offices decorated with dart boards, flat screen televisions and posters of the late Lubavitcher Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson shouted updates from a host of sources – from the BBC and Indian television news, to Voz Iz Neias, a Yiddish Web site.
By Thursday morning, New York time, stacks of Styrofoam coffee cups littered the offices, along with brown bags of untouched bagels and discarded muffin wrappers.
Indian television began broadcasting details of demands made by suspected terrorists apparently using Holtzberg’s cell phone, said Zaklikowski.
“We know his number, we knew it was his,” he told the Post. “I’ve never been involved in such a personal way. These little bits of information that we’re getting – you never want to be put in such a position with anyone, let alone with a friend,” he added.
Still, despite a welter of rumors and gossip Thursday afternoon – first that as many as eight people had been released from the Chabad House, then that they were all Indians from a neighboring building – there was no firm knowledge, and nothing but fear that the worst could yet prove true.
“We are in limbo,” press coordinator Rabbi Motti Seligson said helplessly, his eyes ringed with exhaustion. “Everything is chaotic.”