Decade after Mumbai massacre, murdered Chabad couple’s son flourishes in Israel
Living with his grandparents in Afula, ‘Baby Moshe’ Holtzberg regularly sees Sandra Samuel, who whisked him to safety, and plans to have his upcoming bar mitzvah at his old home
JTA — “Everything is good,” Sandra Samuel says, coming from a weekly visit with her “Moshe-boy.”
She is riding on a bus from Afula in northern Israel back to the apartment in Jerusalem that she shares with four other women from India.
Ten years ago, everyone knew Samuel and the child who was then dubbed Baby Moshe. The photo of the terrified-looking Samuel running from the terrorist-besieged Nariman Chabad House in Mumbai clutching Moshe Holtzberg, the 2-year-old son of Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, the Chabad shluchim, or emissaries, was splashed on the front pages of newspapers around the world.
On November 26, 2008, 10 members of Lashkar-e-Taiba, an Islamic terrorist organization based in Pakistan, carried out a series of 12 coordinated shooting and bombing attacks on locations throughout the Indian city. The Chabad House was among the specifically targeted locations. The photo of Moshe and his brave nanny was one of the bright spots in a tragedy that left 164 people dead and hundreds wounded.
Among the dead were Moshe’s parents and four other Israeli and American visitors to the Chabad House. Five years earlier, the couple had raised money to purchase the house in order to establish a presence in Mumbai.
Samuel is among the many people connected to the attack and its victims who say they carry the honor of having known the Holtzbergs and the burden of missing them. They include the new emissaries of the Mumbai Chabad and a frequent traveler who was meant to be at the center on the day it was attacked.
‘It went so fast, 10 years’
Samuel, 54, remembers the attack and their escape clearly.
“It is not something a person forgets. It will be in my mind forever,” she tells JTA.
But she is happy that Moshe remembers nothing.
Samuel took refuge in a storage room on the first floor of the six-story building at the time of the attack, but hours later she heard Moshe’s cries coming from the second floor. She left her hiding place and ran up the stairs to a room where she found the rabbi and his wife bleeding on the floor – she did not know if they were unconscious or dead – and Moshe sitting on the floor with them, splashed with their blood, crying. She grabbed the baby and ran from the house without looking back.
“It went so fast, 10 years. My Moshe-boy has become so big,” Samuel says, noting that he is as tall as she is. “It is so beautiful to see him.”
Immediately after the attack, Samuel and Moshe flew to Israel to stay with Rivka’s parents. They attended the funeral of the rabbi and his wife. Two years later, Samuel was granted Israeli citizenship in recognition of her heroism.
Today she lives in Jerusalem with a group of much younger Indian women who work as caregivers in the city. She works at ALEH, a network for children with special needs, caring for disabled children. Her Hebrew has not improved much past the basics she learned in ulpan, but Samuel says she manages fine at work and when she goes shopping.
During her weekly visits with Moshe, who lives with his grandparents, they play games and talk about how he is doing in school. When he was younger they would go to the park and out for ice cream or other treats, but Samuel says he has outgrown that.
She plans to remain in Israel for another four or five years “to see Moshe-boy grow up,” and then she will return to India. Her husband died more than a decade ago, months before the attack, but she has two adult sons, aged 29 and 35, who still live in India.
Samuel returns to India about once a year to visit her sons, but does not visit the Chabad House, which is a two-hour drive from their homes.
In July, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Israel to mark 25 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries; it was the first visit to Israel by an Indian head of government. Modi met with Moshe, who said he missed India. Modi invited the boy to return at any time.
In January, Samuel and Moshe joined Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on a trip to Mumbai.
Anxious to catch a glimpse of a boy they consider a grown-up miracle, the media and citizens pursued Moshe throughout his trip. He visited the home in which he had spent the first two years of his life, sat in his former bedroom, was measured for the height chart that his parents had kept for him on the wall. He also saw the bullet and rocket-propelled grenade holes that still mark the walls of the Chabad House.
“My heart beats, my heart is moved, to return to my parents’ home, the Chabad House that has been rebuilt and refurbished,” the boy said as he and Netanyahu unveiled a plaque to memorialize the attack. He pledged to return to Mumbai to serve as an emissary as his parents once did. He also said a special blessing for when one returns to a place from which he has escaped great danger: “Baruch She’Asah Li Nes B’Makom HaZeh – “Blessed is the One Who performed for me a miracle in this place.”
His bar mitzvah reportedly will be held next year in the Mumbai Chabad center.
‘What would the Holtzbergs do?’
The center, meanwhile, has new leadership.
Nearly seven years ago, Rabbi Israel Kozlovsky and his wife, Chaya, arrived at the Chabad House in Mumbai. It was a week and a half after they had been informed that they could take over as the new permanent shluchim and they came to get the lay of the land.
The building was still pockmarked with bullet and mortar holes, and bloodstains remained on the wall. It had, Rabbi Kozlovsky says, “a great emotional impact on us.”
He says he feels the presence of the Holtzbergs all around him – from their photo hanging on the wall, to the bullet hole still in the wall of the building’s sanctuary where the body of Gavriel Holtzberg, or Gabi, was found on the ground.
Three years ago Kozlovsky’s own son, one of his four children — aged 14 months to 6 years — had his brit milah, or circumcision ceremony, next to that spot, and was given the name Gavriel Noach, which was the late rabbi’s full name.
Kozlovsky says that many people who come to the Chabad House now knew the Holtzbergs, and they all relate that both were always smiling.
The rabbi marvels at that ability; starting a Chabad from scratch is not easy. During their five years in Mumbai, the Holtzbergs raised the money to buy the six-story building in a city where real estate prices are exorbitantly high. And more to the point, they began to provide programming and Shabbat meals, and to bring in people. In addition, they had two children born with Tay-Sachs – one older and one younger than Moshe, who died at very young ages. Rivka Holtzberg was five months pregnant at the time of the attack.
Kozlovsky says that if he could have one wish granted, it would be to have a 10-minute conversation with Gavriel Holtzberg. And he says that when he becomes mired in a problem he often asks himself: What would the Holtzbergs do?
A community of about 2,000 Indian Jews still lives in Mumbai. Called Bene Israel, they are considered by local legend to have been one of the lost tribes of Israel. Thousands of them moved to Israel after the establishment of the state in 1948, many facing religious discrimination. But in the 1960s, Israel’s Chief Rabbinate ruled that they were halachically Jewish.
The community that continues to live in Mumbai has seen assimilation through intermarriage and lack of interest in their religion, and has been virtually swallowed up by a congested city with nearly 20 million inhabitants. It is a great challenge for the Kozlovskys.
Three floors of the Chabad building have been restored since the attack. The foundation, damaged during the attack, was strengthened. But the upper floors, including the Holtzbergs’ living space and Moshe’s bedroom, remain intact.
The windows of the building have been replaced with bulletproof glass. A security booth was put on the ground floor. Walls and steel reinforced gates now surround the building.
Security concerns prevent the Kozlovskys from living there; their home is a several-minute walk from Chabad. For the same reason, they cannot host people in the guest rooms.
While living in the shadow of the murdered first Chabad emissaries may seem like too great of a burden, the rabbi says that it gives him and his wife “great honor to know we are building their dream.”
Kozlovsky says he has videotapes of the young couple talking about their future plans for Chabad in Mumbai. Among those plans were a Jewish school, a nursery and after school activities — things the Kozlovskys have established in Mumbai. Things have become so busy that another young couple will soon be joining them to work for the Jewish community.
“We know they are looking from above,” the rabbi says of the Holtzbergs. “We know they are still on their mission.”
A Living Memorial
In honor of the Holtzbergs’ 10th yahrtzeit earlier this month (the Hebrew date and the Gregorian calendar date of the attack can be off by as much as a month each year), the Chabad of Mumbai had printed its own copies of the Hasidic philosophy book known as the Tanya, a favorite of Gavriel Holtzberg. Thirty school-age children also gathered in the sanctuary where the couple died and recited the Shema Yisrael prayer in their honor.
For the Noember 26 anniversary, Chabad in Mumbai will dedicate the Living Memorial – a museum dedicated to showing both Jews and non-Jews how “every individual has the ability and responsibility to make the world a better place” through learning about the life of the Holtzbergs.
The plan, according to Kozlovsky, is to “bring light into the darkness” and to encourage each person to accept upon themselves a particular mitzvah, or deed, in order to make this happen.
There are also plans to turn the building’s rooftop into a “reflection garden,” including a memorial with the names of all 164 victims of the 2008 attacks in Mumbai – it would be the only such memorial in the city — and a waterfall amid beautiful landscaping.
“Ten years ago it was Mumbai,” Kozlovsky says of the threat from terrorism. “Today it is very, very clear that it is a worldwide issue. It is very clear that something needs to be done.”
A near miss
Israeli businessman Gary Spund was supposed to be at the Mumbai Chabad House on the night of the attack. A resident of the central Israeli city of Petach Tikvah, Spund then spent most of his time in Mumbai and had become very close to the Holtzbergs, spending every Shabbat there in a room set aside for him and visiting during the week.
The Holtzbergs invited him for dinner on November 26, 2008. He had been scheduled to take a business trip to China the next morning, but at the last minute the airline called and said the flight had been moved up to the night before. Spund called the rabbi to cancel dinner, and they agreed to get together the following Sunday. It was the last time they spoke.
Spund was allowed into the building within days after the attack. He saw the bloodstains and the bullet holes. And he saw the Torah scroll that had been pierced by a bullet. The bullet had sailed between the two wooden dowels that the parchment is wrapped around, making a hole in just one place on the scroll. It was in the Torah portion that comes right after the death of the sons of Aaron, the High Priest. It is titled “Acharei Mot,” or after the death.
To this day Spund, 59, who owns a real estate investment company, keeps a photo of himself and Gavriel Holtzberg on his desk, and a copy of the rabbi’s Travelers’ Prayer card, which has a photo of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson on the back, in his wallet.
He worked for several months more in Mumbai after the attack. Chabad remained a presence in the city, sending young yeshiva boys for two weeks at a time to run Shabbat services in a local hotel. Spund was the middleman, passing the keys to the building from one group of visiting emissaries to the next. He has not returned since his business ended there.
“I don’t think I ever want to go back to India,” he told JTA.
Spund said he visited the young Moshe occasionally at his grandparents’ home for about two years after the attack, but that the boy didn’t really remember him. He still says the Kaddish prayer for the rabbi and his wife each year on their yahrtzeit.
Earlier this month while on business in the United States, Spund, who made aliyah from New York in 1987, visited the Squirrel Hill neighborhood in Pittsburgh and paid his respects in front of the Tree of Life synagogue building, where a week earlier a gunman killed 11 worshipers during Shabbat services.
“We’re getting so used to this crap,” he said. “We’ve gotten numb to it.”
Spund says he sometimes wonders what God had in mind when his flight to China was changed and kept him away from the Chabad building on the night of the attack. And, he wonders, “Am I living up to it?”
Do you rely on The Times of Israel for accurate and insightful news on Israel and the Jewish world? If so, please join The Times of Israel Community. For as little as $6/month, you will:
- Support our independent journalism;
- Enjoy an ad-free experience on the ToI site, apps and emails; and
- Gain access to exclusive content shared only with the ToI Community, including weekly letters from founding editor David Horovitz.
We’re really pleased that you’ve read X Times of Israel articles in the past month.
That’s why we started the Times of Israel eleven years ago - to provide discerning readers like you with must-read coverage of Israel and the Jewish world.
So now we have a request. Unlike other news outlets, we haven’t put up a paywall. But as the journalism we do is costly, we invite readers for whom The Times of Israel has become important to help support our work by joining The Times of Israel Community.
For as little as $6 a month you can help support our quality journalism while enjoying The Times of Israel AD-FREE, as well as accessing exclusive content available only to Times of Israel Community members.
David Horovitz, Founding Editor of The Times of Israel