Chabad rabbi and rebbetzin dead in Mumbai attack

(JTA) – A Chabad rabbi and his wife were among the dead after Indian forces retook a Jewish center in Mumbai, India from terrorist gunmen.

The deaths of Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivka, the Chabad emissaries in Mumbai, were confirmed Friday by the director of American Friends of Lubavitch, Rabbi Levi Shemtov.

Earlier Friday, CNN quoted local Indian media sources as saying that five hostages at the building were dead; the hostages were not identified.

Conflicting reports following the takeover of Mumbai’s Chabad-Lubavitch house in the terrorist attacks in India, which left more than 140 dead, prompted confusion and anxiety surrounding the fate of the house’s occupants, including the Holtzbergs.

Four Israelis were among those freed from the Trident-Oberoi luxury hotel along with other hostages late Friday morning, according to the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

As many as two dozen Israelis, some of whom are thought to have been in the house, remained unaccounted for late Thursday night.

complete coverage on mumbai chabad attackGunmen armed with automatic rifles and grenades struck 10 separate locations in Mumbai on Wednesday night in coordinated attacks at sites frequented by Westerners, including hotels, restaurants and a railway station. Witnesses said the gunmen — who killed more than 120 people, set buildings ablaze and took hostages — targeted Americans, Britons and Jews. Mumbai’s Chabad house was among the targets.

On Thursday afternoon, Indian commandos surrounded the Nariman House, where Chabad is located, with plans to storm in and release the hostages. There reportedly were four terrorists holed up inside with six hostages. Indian special forces reportedly killed one terrorist in the building.

Earlier Thursday, the hostage takers released the Holtzberg’s 2-year-old son and the building’s cook, who said that the couple was alive but unconscious.

The Israeli consul in Mumbai told Israel Radio on Thursday that the consulate was working to locate approximately 25 Israelis known to be in Mumbai who had not contacted their families at home.

The terrorists also took hostages at the Taj Mahal Palace and Trident-Oberoi luxury hotels. The identity of the attackers is not known. A little-known organization calling itself the Deccan Mujahideen has claimed responsibility.

One terrorist inside the Chabad house called an Indian TV channel Thursday afternoon and offered to enter into talks with the government to release the hostages, Reuters reported.

The Chabad house is located at 5 Hormusji Street in Mumbai. India is a popular destination for young Israeli backpackers, who often make the trip after their army service. The Holtzbergs moved to Mumbai from Brooklyn, New York in 2003 to do Jewish outreach work in India.

One Indian TV channel said five or six Israelis were also among the 100 to 200 hostages being held at the Oberoi hotel, Ynet reported. Some 10 to 15 Israelis are said to be held hostage in sites throughout the city, the Israeli Foreign Ministry told Ynet.

Concern about the fate of the Chabad rabbi and his wife mounted throughout the day, with the Brooklyn-based organization issuing calls for prayer to Jews the world over. The National Council of Young Israel also sent out an alert asking Jews to pray for the rabbi and his wife.

“One friend of Gavriel Holtzberg reported receiving an e-mail from the Mumbai rabbi at 11:30 p.m. local time,” reported. “The Israeli Consulate was in touch with Holtzberg, but the line was cut in middle of the conversation. No further contact has since been established.”

On Thursday morning, according to the Jerusalem Post, the Chabad rabbi’s toddler son was rushed from the house in the arms of one of the Jewish center’s employees, Sandra Samuel.

“I took the child, I just grabbed the baby and ran out,” said Samuel, 44, who was identified as a cook.

She said that the rabbi, his wife and two other unidentified guests were alive but unconscious, The Jerusalem Post reported.

The Rebbetzin

Didi Carr Reuben was not keen about the idea of dating a rabbi, and on her first official date with Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, she was desperate for a way to get out of it.

"He’s a cute guy, but I couldn’t see cuteness," says Didi in her husky voice and Bronx accent. "All I [imagined] was a guy who was 98, 3 feet 2 inches, with a white beard, smelly; three teeth, davening in another language."

Little did this aspiring pop star know that two years later she would marry the rabbi, and eventually serve by his side as a rebbetzin of Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades for more than 15 years.

The rabbi had noticed her striking looks and spirit when she auditioned as an entertainer for a banquet at his former synagogue. In the middle of their first date, Didi, thinking she had found an ingenious way to ward him off, looked him straight in the eye and said: "I’m an atheist, hard-core."

She waited for him to immediately scamper out, but instead, he assumed a rabbinic pose and simply said, "Frankly, I don’t give a –."

For Didi, that’s when the date began, she told The Journal. At that point, she found out she and Steven had a lot in common — in particular, that they both think outside the box. "He introduced to me a new notion of God," she says.

At the time, Didi was an actress (appearing in ABC’s 1977 television series "Sugar Time," among other shows) and a divorced mother of one. She had not stepped foot in a synagogue for 20 years. But after that magical first date, Didi found a new love, a new God, and ultimately a new career — that of a rebbetzin.

"If I had known what it was like to be a rebbetzin, it would have been exactly what I wanted to be when I grew up," she says.

That is, if she went by a nonstandard definition of the term. Didi, now 52, doesn’t act — or look — like the stereotypical modest and shy rebbetzin.

The license plate on her car reads "REBOTZN" — with the "O" in the shape of a heart. She is opinionated, provocative, sometimes raunchy; and her attention to fashion and appearance lends glamour to a role that is often considered devoid of glitz.

Her musical talents, sense of humor and boldness are useful in her social activism and community service. She works on the musical aspects of synagogue life, visits and entertains the sick, and is very active with her community’s teenagers, openly discussing sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll as part of their confirmation classes.

She seems to be doing something right. Since the couple moved in at Kehillat Israel in 1986, the number of families has risen from 225 to over 900. And Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben was recently installed as president of the Southern California Board of Rabbis and received honorary doctorates of divinity from both Hebrew Union College and the Reconstructionist College in Philadelphia.

But the added prestige and growing community haven’t tempered Didi’s outspoken personality.

Her husband laughs off his wife’s unconventionality. "She’s a New Yorker; she speaks her mind," he says. "I’m proud of who she is and I love who she is — all of her — you can’t separate one piece from another."