The terrible wait

Rabbi Holtzberg barely had time to report that his Chabad House was being attacked.

Holtzbergs 248.88  (photo credit: AP)
Holtzbergs 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
The last written word from Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg before the attacks took the form of an unrelated e-mail to a friend, a Chabad colleague who had been attending the just-concluded 25th annual conference of Chabad emissaries in New York. The last spoken word before the long, wrenching silence came in a phone call to the Israeli consulate in Mumbai. Rabbi Holtzberg barely had time to report that his Chabad House was being attacked before the line went dead... and the waiting began. Deep into the small hours of Thursday morning, Israel time, the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem was reporting that it knew nothing concrete about Israelis caught up in the terror attacks. But for hours already, alarm signals had been flashing in cyberspace. Bizarrely, the first indication of possible Israeli casualties appeared in a Bulgarian news agency report. Then came a report from an Indian television station of casualties at "Nariman House" - the formal name of the Chabad headquarters where Holtzberg and his wife Rivki had established the Orthodox outreach movement's Mumbai outpost. Chabad officials, of course, had been trying every phone number for the Holtzbergs for hours - to no avail. Some started posting frantic pleas for information on Internet message boards. And then, as Wednesday turned into Thursday in Israel, the Web site posted an article urging people to pray "for Gavriel Noach ben Freida Bluma and Rivka bas Yehudis" and anyone else caught up in the tragedy. Later, the name of the couple's small boy, Moshe, was added to that entreaty. Hours later, that last prayer, at least, was answered. Sandra Samuel, an Indian employee at the Chabad House who had barricaded herself in a room in the building, heard Moshe crying outside the door, dashed out, grabbed him and somehow fled the building. But more than 24 hours after Chabad first reported that it feared for the safety of the Holtzbergs - and as Rivki's parents flew from Israel to Mumbai hoping, said Rivki's father, Rabbi Shimon Rozenberg, that "we'll find them safe and well" - those fears had only deepened. A Chabad spokesman said eight Israelis, including Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg, had been trapped inside Chabad House when the terrorists struck. But at the end a day of contradictory reports about freed hostages and people sighted lying "unconscious" on the Chabad House floor, there was still no definitive word on what has become of them. As Chabad's Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin had urged in a telephone conversation from New York in the early hours of Thursday morning, "Pray that we should hear good news."