The Magen Hassedim Synagogue is in central Mumbai, built in 1925 and still a thriving center of Jewish life. At noontime on a weekday, more than 35 members of the community turn out to greet and have lunch with us. Our hosts are leaders of the local organizations: the synagogue, the Joint Distribution Committee, ORT, and Jewish schools. We learn a great deal about the Bene Israel community in Bombay, which had as many as 20,000 people before significant immigration to Israel after 1947. The community now numbers around 5000 scattered around Bombay. Its members welcome us warmly, especially because one of their own, Amira Ashtamkar (whose parents and uncle we meet), is a first-year student in the International Business School this year.
After lunch, we have the more sobering experience of a visit to the Chabad House, the site of the 2008 massacre where six people died, including Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and Rivkah Holtzberg, the spiritual leaders of the community. The attack on the Chabad house had resonated deeply in the Brandeis community. It had been a second home to many Jewish students who had traveled or were working in Mumbai. And Indian students at Brandeis, with their many Jewish friends, also felt particularly keen distress at this aspect of the tragedy that had rocked their country. In the wake of the 26 November massacre, Brandeis students founded “Revive Mumbai,” which has and is still working actively to help restore the spirit of the city.
The Chabad House is empty now; the community’s activities have been relocated to another nearby building. The new rabbi has not yet arrived. Jehuda, Harleen and I climb through the building room by room, through the spaces where the hostages were held and died, to the room where the Holtzbergs’ two-year-old child was sleeping, hours before he was miraculously rescued from the building.
More than a year later, much has been repaired, but the scars of the fighting are still vivid, and the haunting memory of the tragedy is intense. In the alleyway outside, we see a sign stenciled on the wall of an adjacent store: “We will not forget the attacks of November 26.” We, too, will not forget.