December 3, 2008

From Steven Schwager, CEO - Terror Attacks in Mumbai

DATE: November 28, 2008

India’s Jews are heirs to a remarkable tradition that has seen them live in this massively populous and tolerant country for thousands of years. For almost this entire period, in fact, Jews have enjoyed an existence devoid of anti-Semitism – so much so that the very concept is foreign and abstract to most members of the community, even today.

Even so, the Indian community saw its numbers dwindle significantly from a high of around 30,000 before the country’s independence in 1947, to 4,500 today. This decline has posed major challenges and, in 1964, JDC became involved in helping the community maintain critical services. Today, JDC continues to play a key role, both in supporting welfare services for those who are indigent, elderly or sick, and Jewish educational and cultural programs to ensure that the community – and especially the young – are able to maintain their strong, proud, and unique Jewish identity.

Among those helping to strengthen the community’s ability to meet these needs are two young volunteers in JDC’s Jewish Service Corps. Barnard/JTS graduates Ariel Schwartz and Sarah Peaceman are spending a year in Mumbai not only teaching at the JDC-supported Jewish community center, but helping develop the ability of local Jews to assume the mantle of teaching and leadership themselves. A third volunteer, Zack Zimbalist, recently took up a position in the city of Ahmedabad where he is working on JDC-supported non-sectarian programs that are implemented by JDC’s leading local partner, the All-India Disaster Mitigation Institute.

But this reality took a shocking turn this past Wednesday when terrorists launched a coordinated assault on key Mumbai locations, especially those associated with foreign visitors. Among these was the city’s Chabad House. Inside were Chabad rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivkie, a remarkable couple whose devotion – mesirut nefesh – has made the Chabad House a haven for all manner of foreign Jews who found themselves in the city.

“With many cities, including Mumbai itself, having experienced serial bombings in recent years, India is a country that is all-too-familiar with terrorism,” JDC’s director for India Antony Korenstein noted as the full effect of the attacks became horrifically clearer. “But 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’”

“It was a particular shock for the Jewish community,” Antony continued. “Even 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!”

Antony is currently in Mumbai and together with country manager Elijah Jacob, they have been monitoring the situation closely and have been in contact with the synagogues and the leaders of the community. As far as they can determine, no members of the local Jewish community – with the exception of those inside the Chabad House – have been harmed in the attacks.

But the situation remains highly fluid – as of this writing, terrorists were still occupying the Chabad House, along with the Taj and Trident Hotels. “Hard information has been completely elusive throughout this crisis,” Antony told me. “And that has added to the uncertainty and the sense of shock, and not just in the Jewish community.”

So JDC’s three JSC volunteers are being evacuated until it is clear that it is safe for them to return. “This was overwhelming and confusing,” Ariel said. Even so, she wasn’t that happy to leave. “Even though I’ve only been here for a few months, this is my home right now and being told you have to leave isn’t easy.” As Sarah said, “Everyone’s taken such good care of us these past 24 hours or so. It just highlights for me the warmth of this special community and how well they’ve received us.”

In the meantime, JDC has offered assistance to Israelis and others who are working to bring relief to attack victims. This has included working together with Magen David Adom – also one of JDC’s partners in responding to the tsunami in India. JDC, for its part, has helped by contacting local hospitals in an effort to locate Israelis who have been missing since the crisis broke.

As I write these words the JDC staff is rallying together and preparing food for the meals on wheels program, so that the 22 elderly Jews living alone and with limited means will have food for Shabbat.

It’s always speculative to predict the long-term impact even of great events before the smoke has cleared. But it seems this attack, like our own 9/11, may well have a transformational effect on Mumbai and on the 90% of the country’s Jewish community that calls the metropolitan region home. And JDC will be there – to extend the American Jewish community’s helping hand to the Indian Jewish community as it meets the challenges of a changing world.

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