India is a country used to terrorism, but the nature and scale of the recent attacks in Mumbai is shocking. As the hotel sieges drew to a close last Friday, military and media attentions shifted to the city’s Chabad Centre in Nariman House, where a rabbi and his family were amongst the hostages, and eventually died during a standoff between terrorists and security services. Facebook and other online groups sprung up in support, and then in memory, of the couple. As a longtime teacher of Judaism, I shared this interest and concern.
There have been Jews in India for many centuries. The synagogue in Kerala (Cochin) is the oldest in the British Commonwealth and was constructed in 1568, when Jews there played an important role in the spice trade. Worshippers enter the building barefoot, in the same manner that their Hindu and Muslim neighbours enter their temples and mosques. Since 1948, however, the community has waned; many people have migrated to Israel. Nowadays, most Indian Jews are Bene Israel, a group who live mainly in Mumbai, also practicing their own distinctive rites such as Malida, the offering of a dish of rice and fruits accompanied by blessings and prayers addressed to God and Elijah.
The building at the centre of last week's tragedy represented a quite different tradition. Chabad-Lubavitch is a form of Hasidism, a type of Judaism that originates in Eastern Europe and seeks to combine mysticism with a carefully observant (‘ultra-Orthodox’) lifestyle. Most Hasidic groups are led by hereditary dynasties, and Chabad’s case, its recent leaders have organised and urged their followers to undertake an extensive programme of ‘kiruv’, ‘bringing close’ or outreach. This work aims to rebuild a kind of Judaism that was devastated by the Nazi Holocaust. Chabad is also – unusually – firmly messianic in orientation. (In fact, members disagree as to whether Menahem Mendel Schneerson, their late leader, is the Messiah.). Reaching out to each and every Jewish soul is seen as a way of preparing for, perhaps even hastening, the advent of the Messiah and Israel’s restoration.
These motivations take Chabad workers to centres around the world, such as Mumbai, an international, cosmopolitan city popular with young Israeli backpackers. Many of the activities Chabad workers undertake are highly visible – approaching Jews in the street and encouraging them to pray or observe other commandments, and erecting large public menorahs (candelabra) during the winter festival of Chanukkah (their work with drug addicts and the homeless is less well known). As such, they risk the opprobrium of more quietist Jews, and the sometimes violent attentions of anti-Jewish, and anti-Israeli groups.
The deaths of Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivka are reminders both of the increasingly globalized nature of religion, and of the risks that many ordinary people take each day in pursuit of their religious goals.