Freezing rain pattered against the dusty windowpanes of 770 Eastern Parkway last Sunday afternoon as frenzied staffers hurried up and down the twisted stairwell that leads to the Chabad.org office in Crown Heights. Inside, writers and editors of the movement’s popular Web site looked for new information on the unfolding tragedy in Mumbai, India. Their reddened eyelids were peeled back in exhaustion and their wrinkled tzitzit dangled from untucked white button-downs, as they munched on stale scrambled eggs and drank flat bottled soda to stay awake.
Minus a short reprieve on Shabbat, most of the staff at Chabad.org, housed in world Lubavitch headquarters, had remained sleepless since tragedy hit their center in Mumbai, India, on Nov. 26. They hoped and prayed and posted minute-by-minute updates about their brother and sister, Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg, as they were taken hostage in their own home and eventually killed.
“The Chabad.org office became a command center for 48 hours,” said Rabbi Dovid Zaklikowski, a staff member.
“This place just kind of converted into a crisis center,” added Rabbi Menachem Posner, who is one of the “Ask the Rabbi” writers for Chabad.org.
Working through what many of them called a “daze,” Chabad leaders have pledged to move forward despite the tragedy and transform the horror of the attacks into positive, productive energy for the movement. Rabbi Posner noted that when he has returned to the office each morning, he has found a core group of men who still have not left from the night before and are plowing away at their work, sleepless yet determined.
Outside, however, the mood was darker and the Crown Heights streets were quieter than usual early this week, as residents tried to understand their feelings and figure out why such a tragedy had struck their niche in the Jewish community.
“We all feel such a tremendous loss for the entire Jewish nation,” Rabbi Posner said, calling last week’s Mumbai terror attacks a “crushing loss.”
“I think that people are coming out of that confused, dazed, shell-shocked feeling and are realizing that we have to move forward from here.”
Spiritual and secular leaders across the world are trying to figure out how best to deal with the emotional impact of the tragedy. Chabad.org is doing its part, with a link on its homepage to a “Tragedy in Mumbai” section. This virtual coping page allows for personal reflection postings and asks for monetary contributions to quickly rebuild the Chabad center in Mumbai and to support the Holtzberg children. In a “What Can I Do?” section, viewers can post “Recent Mitzvah Resolutions,” pledges to perform specific good deeds in memory of the Holtzbergs and in honor of their son Moshe and his nanny Sandra, who are miraculously still alive.
But Internet support may not be enough.
Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, a Chabad leader, suggested that Chabad will be hiring a “frum psychologist” to help children of shluchim deal with the residual trauma; he made the suggestion during a 20-minute conference call to over 400 emissaries this week shared on the COLLive.com Lubavitch news site.
Psychological counseling will be helpful to the many children of shluchim, as long as such health care professionals are “sensitive to our nuances,” according to Rabbi Shea Hecht, an activist in the Chabad community. What may have been the most damaging part of the ordeal, Rabbi Hecht speculated, was the prolonged “false hope” that pervaded the community for nearly 60 hours following the terror attacks.
“The people that are going to be most affected are going to be the children, especially the adolescent children of Chabad shluchim,” said Dr. Isaac Herschkopf, a clinical instructor in the Department of Psychiatry at New York University’s Langone Medical Center.
“Imagine if you’re a Chabad child in a Muslim country,” he continued. “During adolescence is when you question your axioms. I would imagine that those adolescents have a great deal of anxiety, a great deal of questions.”
Losing a family member, particularly a parent, may be one of the hardest circumstances for a child to fathom, Herschkopf said. “What’s much scarier than losing your life is losing the life of someone you depend on.”
While rabbinic support is certainly beneficial, Hershkopf agrees that many children and adults will need professional psychological or psychiatric counseling. What is most important in his opinion, however, is that shluchim parents spend an increased amount of “alone time” with their children.
“The best approach at times like this is family unity,” Hershkopf said. “If I was talking to a shaliach in a far-flung Muslim country, I would say now’s the time to do a little less outreach and a little more in-reach.”
Whether or not they choose to discuss the specifics of the tragedy, it seems that parents and teachers throughout the neighborhood are “reaching in” to their children and monitoring their emotional well-being.
“I said to [my students] that if this group can cause that much destruction in the world, imagine if that size group got together to do good deeds,” said Rabbi Menachem Mendel Nemes, a yeshiva teacher and a program organizer at the Jewish Children’s Museum, which is in Crown Heights.
Along Kingston Avenue on Tuesday, three mothers pushed strollers together and avoided talk of the tragedy, hoping to shield their young children from the pain and continue their lives.
“We’re not handling the pain,” said one of the women, who identified herself as Mrs. Goldstein. “But we’re continuing doing what we have to do.”
“There was love from everybody in the street, from Jew to non-Jew,” recalled another of the women, Chana Pinson. “You’ve got to go forward and move on,” she said, comparing this tragedy to the 1956 terror attack in Kfar Chabad, Israel, when the Lubavitcher rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, instructed the community to rebuild as a source of comfort.
“Clearly the rebbe is the superego of the Chabad community,” Herschkopf said, referring to the late Schneerson. “At times like this he provides a sense of relief that this is for the good, this is for the better and everything will turn out OK.”
But he advises community members that in addition to taking solace from the rebbe, it is crucial to talk to their children and discuss their concerns, rather than burying what happened.
“It’s good to have a meal without the community and just with your kids, so your kids can talk,” Herschkopf said.
Rabbi Hecht agreed, stressing the importance of simply being there for the children and focusing on the few miracles that came out of this traumatic situation.
“This took place for Americans over the Thanksgiving weekend. How much of our life do we take for granted? The fact is that Moishele was saved,” he said, a reference to the Holtzbergs’ son, Moshe. He noted that the nanny who saved the boy, Sandra Samuel, received citizenship from Israel. “I was so proud of Israel to do that. She sacrificed herself.”
While Rabbi Hecht feels that parents should obscure tragic events for their youngest family members, older children may be more ready to cope with the tragedy.
“As a parent and grandparent, I think in America we sometimes make a mistake by telling our kids too much,” Rabbi Hecht said, noting how unpredictable children’s imaginations can be. This week, he held a phone conference with 350 children of shluchim and gave them only positive encouragement about their roles in emissary families all over the world.
And around the globe, young Chabad couples intend to keep the Chabad light shining.
“The sun never sets on the Chabad empire,” Herschkopf said. “They transcend all geographical boundaries.”