By Jennifer Grogan, theday.com
Rabbi Avrohom Sternberg held a prayer book as he watched the news last week.
He was praying for an end to the terrorist siege in Mumbai and for the safety of his friend, Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg.
Holtzberg, 29, of the ultra-orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch sect, and his wife, Rivkah, 28, ran the Nariman House, a Jewish center in the Indian city of Mumbai that had become a target of the attackers.
More than 170 people were killed in the city, including the Holtzbergs. A nanny escaped with the Holtzbergs’ toddler son, Moshe.
”You hardly find people like that, who just lived a life not for themselves but for others,” said Sternberg, director of Chabad of Eastern Connecticut and spiritual leader of Congregation Ahavath Chesed in New London.
Sternberg, also a member of the Chabad-Lubavitch sect, grew up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, with Holtzberg, who went to school with Sternberg’s younger brother. In 2003, Holtzberg moved to Mumbai to open the Chabad House. The two rabbis still saw each other at religious conferences.
At a service Sunday morning, Sternberg asked the 50 people in attendance to write down something they could do to help others, in keeping with the Holtzbergs’ dedication to the Jewish community.
“Such a small number of people were able to plan so much in advance and bring so much destruction,” Sternberg said. “Imagine if we all get together and try to impact the world in a powerful way, for the good.”
Rabbi Hyim Shafner knows what it’s like to work with the tiny Jewish population in Mumbai; he was there from 1995 to 1996. Many Jewish people had moved from India to Israel in the 1950s and 1960s, so by the time Shafner arrived, the population had dwindled to a few thousand.
”The Jews of India were always very, very proud that there had never been any anti-Semitism in India,” said Shafner, who grew up in New London and now lives in St. Louis. “They had never felt hated.”
The Chabad House later opened in what Shafner describes as the “touristy section of town,” not far from the landmark Taj Mahal hotel, which was also attacked. The Chabad would have served mostly Jewish tourists since the older synagogues are a few miles north, Shafner said.
”This may be less about India having problems with Jews and more about a new breed of radical Islam having an issue with the West,” Shafner said.
Many in the Indian community in eastern Connecticut also identify with the victims of the attacks, said Sunil Bhatia, an associate professor of human development at Connecticut College.
”There’s a very personal quality to this because many, many immigrants are from large cities and many travel back home often,” said Bhatia, who grew up near Mumbai. “If they can’t be safe in the elite part of Mumbai, which parts are left? Could it happen anywhere else? These are the questions that are being asked.”
Bhatia is the author of “American Karma: Race, Culture, and Identity and the Indian Diaspora,” based on a two-year study of the middle-class Indians living in southern Connecticut.
”There is anger toward the government for not being able to protect its citizens, anger toward the terrorists and, of course, sadness for the people who lost their lives,” he said.
Bhatia said he fears this will lead to an escalation of tensions between India and Pakistan, where some of the gunmen reportedly lived or trained, and regional religious conflict between Hindus and Muslims.
India is home to about 1.1 billion people. The majority, 80.5 percent, are Hindu, followed by 13.4 percent Muslim, 2.3 percent Christian, 1.9 percent Sikh, 1.8 percent other and 0.1 percent unspecified, according to demographic information from the Central Intelligence Agency.
About 300 employees of Pfizer Inc. work in an office in north Mumbai and 400 work at a manufacturing plant in Thane, farther north of the city. None of them was directly affected by the attacks and work at both locations has continued with added security, according to the company.
Sternberg is trying not to dwell on what happened. Rather, he said, he is looking at the Holtzbergs as a source of inspiration.
”It doesn’t take much to realize that living in Mumbai, for a westerner, is not the easiest thing to do,” he said. “When they went in 2003, it was not for six months or for a year, it was a commitment for life.
”They gave up the comforts of living in a strong Jewish community for the sake of helping other Jews and helping people in general.”
* Rabbi Avrohom Sternberg will speak about the terrorist attacks in Mumbai at Temple Emanu-El, 29 Dayton Road, Waterford, at 12:15 p.m Thursday. The public is invited but should RSVP to the temple at 860-443-3005 or to Sternberg at [email protected]
* Sternberg will also host a Shabbat Community Service and Meal, as celebrated at the Chabad House of Mumbai, for the Jewish community on Friday. The event begins with a candlelighting at 4:01 p.m. at Congregation Ahavath Chesed, 590 Montauk Ave., New London. Anyone interested in attending should RSVP to 437-8000 or [email protected]