Nariman House may have been destroyed during the November 26 terror attacks, but Chabad House, the outreach community centre that was operating inside the building, is continuing its work.
On Friday night at a city apartment, whose location Hindustan Times was instructed not to disclose, Rabbi Yossi Bendet and Rabbi Leibel Kahanov, first cousins and young rabbis from the orthodox Jewish Chabad-Lubavitch movement in the US, hosted the first Sabbath dinner in the Mumbai Chabad House’s new abode.
Fifteen guests, including backpackers, businessmen and Indian Jews, attended the service. It was the first time they had been inside the apartment, from where the Chabad movement will operate until the centre decides whether to sell Nariman House after it is renovated or move Chabad House back inside. This location will be revealed only to those who need to know it.
“Chabad House is open to Jews at whichever stage of their religion they are at,” said Bendet.
Many of the chairs in the flat had been recovered from Nariman House, the home of the murdered Chabad emissaries Rabbi
Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivka.
In the sitting room hung a painting of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the last living leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement. Bendet said it had been rescued from the walls of Nariman House undamaged, even though everything around had been reduced to rubble.
It was an emotional experience for some. “I think Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka are looking down on us,” said an Indian Jewish girl, crying.
But for most of the evening, everyone was upbeat, sharing stories, discussing excerpts from the Torah and singing Hebrew songs from pamphlets rescued from Nariman House that were written by the late Rabbi Holtzberg.
The backpackers said they rarely went to the synagogue. With a rakhi tied around his wrist, a Brazilian backpacker, said he was in India to visit a Hindu guru. But at a satsang he had met two Jews who invited him to the synagogue, and from there he was invited to the Sabbath meal.
“I was expelled from Jewish school,” he said. “I’m not at all religious and I can’t properly read Hebrew.” Everyone ate kosher chicken that was slaughtered by Gavriel’s father when in Mumbai a few weeks ago.
Bendet and Kahanov will soon leave Mumbai and be temporarily replaced either by Rivka’s sister and her husband, currently waiting for their visas in Israel, or by other Chabad House emissaries until the headquarters in New York find a couple to permanently run the Mumbai centre.
The Chabad movement needs to raise crores of rupees to renovate Nariman House, which still resembles a disaster site inside. It will then either sell it or, less likely, re-install the Mumbai centre there.
“There is too much negative association with Nariman House,” said Dr Aaron Abraham (51), an Indian Jewish doctor. “When people enter, they start crying.”