Half a world away, Los Angeles mourns

Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin speaks at a memorial service in Westwood. Photo by Brad Greenberg

Peggi Sturm, executive director of the Los Angeles congregation B’nai Horin, had traveled to India for two weeks of spiritual meditation. Her experience was amazing, she said, and almost a week still remained when her transcendence was interrupted by terror.

While chatting with a friend in the lobby of the Oberoi Hotel in Mumbai and heading for the street-level restaurant, Sturm heard gunfire and dashed for the elevator.

“When I got out of the elevator on my floor, I heard them machine-gunning everyone down in the lobby. That is when most of the people who were killed in the Oberoi were killed. If I hadn’t gotten in that elevator, I would have been dead,” Sturm said. “Thank God it wasn’t my time.”

To get to her room, Sturm had to cross from the elevator to the opposite end of the atrium without being detected. She ran as quickly, as close to the wall and as low to the ground as possible. She flung open her hotel room door, bolted it shut and, with her roommate, who was inside, stuffed pillows under the door.

Complete coverage of Mumbai Chabad attackThey didn’t leave until Indian commandos pounded on the door and ushered them to safety 36 hours later.

“I’m not angry,” Sturm said Monday after returning early to Los Angeles. She is now raising funds to support the Indian hotel workers left jobless by the attacks. “It’s now more than ever important to love and increase the amount of love in the world. Got to get rid of this darkness.”

The Mumbai terror attacks, which left more than 170 dead, began Nov. 26 and were felt in Los Angeles within moments. No story, however, has resonated more painfully than the siege of the Chabad house and the tragedy of Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife, Rivkah.

Jews around the world prayerfully followed the flurry of online news reports that the couple were missing; that the Chabad house had been overtaken by terrorists; that the Holtzbergs’ 2-year-old son, Moshe, had been rescued by his Indian nanny; that some of the hostages had been released; that Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg might be among those freed; and, finally, that the Holtzbergs and four other Jews had been killed by the terrorists.

“All of the Jewish people are connected. They are part of us,” said Marilyn Greenberg, 71, who was one of more than 1,000 to attend a memorial service Sunday at the Chabad house in Westwood. “A young family, doing work for Klal Yisroel — and they were killed because they were Jewish. There wasn’t any other reason.”

“This is a strong community,” said Vic Shapiro, 46. “You can’t spring a leak on one side of a boat and claim your feet are going to be dry on the other side.”

Anticipating far too many mourners to fit inside the world’s first Chabad house, Los Angeles police shut down a block of Gayley Avenue so Chabad could hold the ceremony in the street. Speakers included some of L.A.’s top officials, including Sheriff Lee Baca, County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, City Councilman Jack Weiss and L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa via cell phone; Israeli Consul General Jacob Dayan and leaders from the Jewish community; Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin, director of West Coast Chabad; Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center; and John Fishel, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

The overwhelming majority of mourners had never met the Holtzbergs. But that didn’t matter. They have become, for Americans, the public face of this tragedy.

“In the face of those who wish only to destroy, there are individuals like Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and Rivkah Holtzberg, who travel great distances far from their homes to build a better world,” Hillary Clinton, the senator from New York and soon-to-be secretary of state, said in ALTTEXT a news release Saturday.

For Dr. Sherwin Isenberg, a pediatric ophthalmologist at UCLA, the connection with the Holtzbergs was more personal.

Isenberg has been traveling back and forth to India to test a potential treatment for fungal infections that have left 10,000 Indian children blind. There are no Jews in the communities where his three research centers are based, so a week before the violence, on the morning of Nov. 22, Isenberg flew to Mumbai to celebrate Shabbat at the Chabad house, as he had done before.

Isenberg began by attending service at Knesset Eliyahu, Mumbai’s historic synagogue, where, coincidentally, his father was raised and his in-laws wed. From there he followed Rabbi Holtzberg back to the Chabad house for Kiddush. Isenberg said couldn’t keep up with Holtzberg, who was brimming with energy and enthusiasm, but the rabbi’s black hat was like a guiding star on the crowded Indian street.

The next day, Isenberg returned to the synagogue, which is not run by Chabad, and listened to Holtzberg deliver an insightful sermon about how the Torah says we should treat animals.

Holtzberg invited Isenberg back to the Chabad house for lunch, but the ophthalmologist was tired, and it was hot outside, so he declined and retired to his room in the Taj Mahal Hotel.

“The last I saw of him was leaving the synagogue on Saturday morning. He was happy. He had guests going with him. A number of people were thanking him for the brilliance of his sermon about treating animals,” Isenberg said. “I keep running scenes of that Shabbat through my mind. Scenes of walking with him, scenes of his sermon, the dancing — they have been running through my mind. I’ve had great difficulty sleeping.”

Rebekah Jilali, the administrator at Young Israel of Century City, didn’t know the Holtzbergs, but she knows Mumbai, and she’s had a hard time fathoming what has occurred in the city where she was born and raised. Jilali grew up six blocks from the Taj Mahal Hotel, where she was married. Many of her cousins and friends still live there. And last week, as she read up-to-the-minute reports of the attacks in her neighborhood, she felt paralyzed by terror.

“The horror and the deep, deep anxiety, and not being able to get away from watching blow-by-blow online with the Chabad house — watching my neighborhood be destroyed,” Jilali, 58, said before correcting herself. “Maybe destroyed is the wrong word. Violated. It’s not going to be destroyed. They will rebuild.”

But the wounds won’t heal so quickly. Jilali flew to India on Tuesday, less than a week after the attacks began and only two days after the siege ended, for a wedding in New Delhi. She had planned to travel southwest to Mumbai, which she still calls Bombay, after the celebration.

“I canceled the Bombay part,” she said by phone Monday, “not because of fear but because it is just too sad to go there right now.”

Photo: Peggi Sturm