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10 years after the Mumbai massacre, the Chabad couple’s son flourishes in Israel

By Marcy Oster

JERUSALEM (JTA) — “Everything is good.”

Sandra Samuel is riding on a bus from Afula in northern Israel to the city apartment in Jerusalem that she shares with four other women from India. She is coming from a weekly visit with her “Moshe-boy.”

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 two-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 Nov. 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 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.

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 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.

Immediately after the attack, Samuel and Moshe flew to Israel to stay with Rivka’s parents. Two years later, Samuel was granted Israeli citizenship in recognition of her heroism. Today she lives in Jerusalem where she works at ALEH, a network for children with special needs, caring for disabled children.

During her weekly visits with Moshe, who lives with his grandparents, they play games and talk about how he is doing in school. A widow, 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. where her two grown sons still live.

In July, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Israel to mark 25 years of diplomatic relations between the two countries; 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.

“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.

The center, meanwhile, has new leadership.

Nearly seven years ago, Rabbi Israel Kozlovsky and his wife, Chaya, arrived at the Chabad House in Mumbai. 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.

During their five years in Mumbai, the Holtzbergs not only raised the money to buy the six-story building, 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.

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.

Meanwhile, the community that continues to live in Mumbai has virtually been swallowed up — through intermarriage and lack of interest in Judaism — by a congested city with nearly 20 million inhabitants. It is a great challenge for the Kozlovskys.

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 afterschool 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.”

In honor of the Holtzbergs’ 10th yahrtzeit earlier this month, 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 Nov. 26 anniversary, Chabad in Mumbai dedicated 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.”

CAP: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet with Moshe Holtzberg and his nanny Sandra Samuel at the Nariman Chabad House in Mumbai, the site of the 2008 terrorist attack that left Moshe’s parents dead, July 5, 2017. (Atef Safadi/AFP/Getty Images/via JTA)

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