Mumbai Jewish center an empty shell as court decides its fate
Chabad Lubavitch is taking the family of the victims of the attack on the Mumbai Jewish center to court, hoping to halt their efforts to renovate the center.
The lights and water have been turned off at the Jewish center stormed by Pakistani gunmen during their 2008 rampage through the Indian financial capital, and the windows remain gaping holes that let in the wind.
The reconstruction of Mumbai's Chabad House has been halted and the Bombay High Court has taken possession of the building that became a symbol of the terror attack — which began two years ago Friday — as the parents of its slain rabbi fight a Jewish group over who should control it.
At stake is who controls and redesigns the property, the feelings of a family still whipsawed by grief and the legacy of six lives tragically lost in this nondescript building that served as a spiritual oasis for Jews in the city.
"The building is just standing there looking so gloomy," Nachman Holtzberg said through a translator Wednesday, as he sat beneath photos of his son, Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg, and daughter-in-law on the ground floor of the Chabad House. "We would not have chosen to go to court."
But go to court they did, to respond to a suit from Chabad Lubavitch, a New York-based Orthodox Jewish group that runs Chabad Houses across the world.
The rabbi's parents say the group has been too slow to reconstruct the building where gunmen slaughtered their son, his wife and four others during the Islamic militants' 60-hour rampage that claimed 166 lives in all across the city.
Holtzberg's parents say that after a year and a half of waiting they began using their own money to rebuild and fear Chabad will turn the house into a memorial, rather than a living testament to their son's work.
Chabad, however, says it had to halt the family's construction efforts because they were unsafe and lacked the necessary permits. They hired a construction firm in June and have given them a $14,000 deposit.
"It's sometimes arduous to endure the long time it takes to acquire all the permits and other things necessary to ensure proper safety, but we are adamant about ensuring that all construction is done legally and safely, both from a security perspective as well as a structural one," said group spokesman Rabbi Motti Seligson.
Chabad's vision for the house, outlined in October, includes a kosher kitchen, synagogue and function space, with the top two floors dedicated to memorials. The group, which has been operating from a second, undisclosed location, may well maintain facilities — for example, for living quarters — at another site as well.
In late October, Rabbi Yosef Kantor, the director of Chabad in Thailand who also oversees the group's activities in India, filed a suit in Mumbai civil court to stop work on the building.
The suit was filed against Eliran Russo, a businessman who says he has power of attorney in India for Nachman Holtzberg. Holzberg is a member of the trust that controls the building, and under that authority Russo embarked on the broader construction efforts, which he maintains are safe and legal. He said he used family funds as well as other donations.
"We did all the legal necessary steps needed for this rebuilding, together with our lawyer," Russo said. "We are meaning to continue and hope the court will allow us."
Beneath the contentious construction lie questions about who has legal control of the property. The title to the property lies with the Chabad of India Trust, which Gavriel Holtzberg helped set up in 2005, two years after he came to Mumbai to serve as rabbi.
His family maintains that Kantor does not have the right to serve as a trustee, and instead only Holtzberg's heir can appoint or remove trustees. That heir is his 4-year-old son Moshe, who escaped the carnage with the help of his nanny and now lives in Israel.
Chabad's Seligson dismissed that argument, saying Kantor, the Chabad director in Thailand, has been a member of the trust since its inception. He added that Kantor had also appointed the Holtzmans to serve in Mumbai and was their boss. Moreover, Chabad Lubavitch says its headquarters in Brooklyn, N.Y. paid for the building's purchase.
Responding to allegations in the Indian press that Chabad has misappropriated money that should have been used for reconstruction, Chabad says it raised $1.6 million after the 2008 attack, over half of which has been put in a trust for Moshe. It has spent another $75,000 on the building's upkeep and rebuilding plans and is holding the balance for the actual reconstruction. All funds are independently audited, the group says.
Hovering over the debate is the tiny figure of Moshe. Both Chabad and Holtzberg's parents say they want to make sure that if Moshe comes back to Mumbai, he will see towering evidence of his parents' legacy.
His grandmother, Frieda Holtzberg, said the child likes to draw pictures of houses.
"He says, 'It's my home in Bombay,'" she said, referring to Mumbai's former name. "Somehow his heart is still very connected here."