Coordinated terrorist assaults in the heart of India’s commercial capital, Mumbai, on Wednesday, November 26th, 2008 left many destinations popular with foreign visitors in shock and in flames. The city’s Chabad House was sieged, and Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivka—a remarkable couple whose devotion has made the House a haven for Jews visiting the city—were among the hostages taken. As of this report, AP informs that national security commandoes who went in to fight attackers in the house discovered five bodies: the couple was among them. JDC, which has been working in India for over 40 years, has staff on the ground and is monitoring the situation, which to date remains tenuous and horrifying.
JDC Country Director for India, Antony Korenstein, notes that while cities in India, including Mumbai itself, have experienced bombings in recent years, this week’s attack was different. “The shock at the terrorists’ daring was palpable, so much so that many people have been calling this‘India’s 9/11,’” he says.
“It is a particular shock for the Jewish community. Though it’s not clear whether the Chabad House was targeted because it was Jewish or more because it was so visibly foreign, here was a Jewish institution being attacked. Not in Europe. Not in Latin America. But in India,” he continues.
For thousands of years, Jews in India have lived without anti-Semitism. Immigration, largely to Israel and the U.S., has dwindled Jewish figures from a high of some 30,000 before the country’s independence in 1947. Today, the 4,500 Jews who remain in India freely and actively embrace their rich and remarkable Jewish traditions.
JDC began to address the eventual challenges posed by the population decline, by helping India’s Jewish community maintain critical services starting in 1964. Today, JDC continues to play a key role in India, both in supporting welfare services for those who are indigent, elderly, or sick, and Jewish educational and cultural programs to ensure that the community—especially the young—can maintain their strong, proud, and unique Jewish identity.
Three 2008 JDC Jewish Service Corps volunteers are among those helping to strengthen the community’s ability to thrive, spearheading educational programs at the JDC-sponsored Evelyn Peters Jewish Community Center in Mumbai and working in Ahmedabad on JDC-supported non-sectarian programs being implemented by JDC’s leading local partner, the All-India Disaster Mitigation Institute. As a precaution in light of the Mumbai attacks, the volunteers have been temporarily evacuated from what they affectionately refer to as “their home away from home” until it is clear that it is safe to return to India.
Since Wednesday’s attacks, JDC’s staff on the ground has been in regular contact with the synagogues and Jewish community leaders to ensure their well-being and has offered assistance to Israelis and others working to bring relief to attack victims, including Magen David Adom, a JDC partner in responding to the 2004 South Asian tsunami in India. JDC has also contacted local hospitals to help locate Israelis who have been missing since the crisis broke and has begun working on enhancing security throughout the Jewish institutions.
JDC is also prepared to implement its emergency preparedness program, which it organized with the Mumbai municipality and Israeli Consulate, once the current situation stabilizes. JDC staff on the ground continues to monitor the situation closely.
Even as the situation in Mumbai remains in flux and the dust has yet to settle, normal JDC activity on the ground continues, including delivering meals in time for Shabbat to 22 needy elderly Jews who live alone.