Complaining that the Indian government was not giving them long-term visas, Rabbi Yaakov-David Leiter and his wife Sara, who were hoping to carry forward the legacy of Sara’s sister Rivka Holtzberg and her husband Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg at Chabad House in Mumbai, have apparently changed their mind and decided not to take up the assignment.
The Holtzbergs, who were running the Jewish centre of the ultra-orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch movement, ended up becoming the most high-profile foreign victims of the 26/11 terror attack. They and four other Jewish people they were hosting were killed by two Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorists who raided their building in a nondescript lane in the Colaba area. But their two-year-old son Moshe escaped miraculously with the help of his Indian nanny, Sandra.
The New York-headquartered movement had subsequently chosen Moshe’s aunt and uncle to move to Mumbai and continue providing visiting Jews a “home away from home” in the Indian financial capital. The Leiters, who live in the northern Israeli city of Safed, had applied for visas for themselves and their two children in February.
The choice of Sara and her husband was not difficult as her parents in Israel, Rabbi Shimon Rosenberg and Yehudit, were keen to preserve and build on the memory of Rivka and Gavriel as they were famous for their hospitality and kindness.
Besides, the Leiters are also associated with a similar but much larger Jewish centre called Ascent in Safed, which owns a former hotel with 85 beds, a synagogue and a Jewish library which act as a youth hostel, recreation centre and a place for religious retreats, and so had the necessary experience.
But almost six months later, their plans seem to have been grounded. “They don’t have visas,” Rosenberg told The Indian Express by phone from Afula. “They were told they could only gets visas for three or four months. They don’t want to go for three or four months. They need it for longer.”
Indian Ambassador to Israel, Navtej Sarna, however, countered this and said that the visa applications had not been rejected. “In fact, we are waiting to give them visas within the existing rules. The embassy has been in touch with the family and we have gone out of our way to give clearances. They have not yet taken the visas.”
Sources in New Delhi said that all foreigners seeking resident visas had to first arrive in India on a three-month visa and then apply to the local Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) for longer duration visas. The same rule was being followed in the case of the Leiters as well, officials said, adding that they were perplexed why this could not be followed.
The Leiters, in fact, had not even turned up to pick up their passports they had submitted to the Indian Embassy in Tel Aviv through an agent in February, they said. There was also some concern about the manner in which Chabad was operating and expanding its network in India, apparently without taking permissions required for a foreign religious NGO, and had ended up becoming a target for Islamist terrorists, they added.
Yaakov-David refused to comment and there was also no response to calls and e-mails sent to the Chabad spokesman in New York. But with the Leiters out of the picture for the time being to run the temporary Chabad centre in Mumbai, an alternative Jewish couple had arrived in Mumbai last week to do the job, sources said. There is also no clarity yet within the group on where the new centre should be located as the Nariman House building is yet to find buyers, they added.