They woke up in middle of the night with one intention: to participate in the worldwide mourning of six Jews killed in the Mumbai terrorist attacks.
In a crowded high school room, several hundred members of Crown Heights’ Hasidic community watched a live Webcast of the funerals taking place in Israel.
“I don’t think anyone could have fathomed that something so shocking and so violent and horrible could have happened,” said Crown Heights resident Dina Denebeim.
Israeli President Shimon Peres, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, and Opposition Leader Benjamin Netanyahu all attended the Chabad service.
Among the local mourners, there’s a special focus on two of the victims: Rabbi Gavriel Noach Holtzberg, 29, and his wife Rivkah, 28, who ran a cultural center in Mumbai for the ultra-orthodox Chabad-Lubavitch movement. Their bodies — hers wrapped in a shroud, his in a prayer shawl — were laid out on a dais outside the Israel headquarters. They were later taken to Jerusalem for burial, accompanied by thousands of mourners.
Crown Heights isn’t just another local community reacting to an international tragedy. There are several members of the Holtzberg family living in the community, and for them, the ordeal has been especially difficult
“It still hurts, and it’s gonna hurt for a long time,” says Shmuel Spielin, a relative of the Holtzbergs.
The thoughts and prayers of the tight knit community are with all of the families, but especially with the Holtzberg’s 2-year old son, Moshe, who was saved by his Indian nanny. And while the boy’s parents lost their lives, his family’s legacy will live on through the cultural center in Mumbai, which religious leaders say they intend to rebuild.
“We will answer the terrorists,” Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, a Chabad official from New York, vowed in the eulogy, his voice shaking. “We will not fight them with AK-47s. We will not fight them with grenades. We will not fight them with tanks.
“We will fight them with torches!” he cried, referring to God’s teachings.
He pledged to rebuild the Mumbai center — one of thousands of Chabad outreach facilities around the world — and name it after the Holtzbergs.
The only other surviving member of the family, Moshe’s brother, has Tay-Sachs, a terminal genetic disease, and is institutionalized in Israel. The Holtzbergs’ eldest son died of the disease.
The Holtzbergs had lived in Israel and Brooklyn before they moved to Mumbai in 2003. Rabbi Holtzberg also had U.S. citizenship.
Most of the people who came were bearded men in the black suits and black fedoras of Chabad members. Women gathered behind a yellow metal partition, in accordance with the Jewish custom of separating the sexes during prayer.
The grimness of the funerals was deepened by the conviction that the victims were struck because of their religion.
“It’s a very difficult feeling because we know this was targeted against us,” said Eliahu Tzadok, 41, who attended the funeral of another victim, 38-year-old Leibish Teitelbaum, an American who had lived in Jerusalem before her death in India. “It’s a continuation of acts against the Jewish people when the Jewish people did nothing to deserve it.”
Teitelbaum belonged to a prominent family in the small, ultra-Orthodox Satmar sect, which is ideologically opposed to the state of Israel.
His family informed the Israeli government that they wanted no state involvement or symbols at his funeral, an official in the government ministry in charge of state ceremonies said Monday. But when Teitelbaum’s casket was taken off the plane from Mumbai, it was draped with an Israeli flag.
Shmuel Poppenheim, who studied with Teitelbaum in his youth, told Israel Radio that “disturbed his family very much.” There were no Israeli flags or government representatives at the funeral.
A fourth victim, 50-year-old Norma Shvarzblat Rabinovich of Mexico, had planned to immigrate to Israel to join two of her children.
The two other victims were Yocheved Orpaz, 60, who had been traveling in India with a daughter and grandchildren, and Bentzion Chroman, 28, who like Teitelbaum, was a supervisor of kosher food.