What were Orthodox Jews doing in Mumbai?

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Dec. 3 2008 7:08 PM

What Were Orthodox Jews Doing in Mumbai?

Making better Jews.

The Speed Explainer Column brought to you by AT&T.

Six of the people killed during last week's terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, died in Nariman House, the local headquarters of the Orthodox Jewish group Chabad-Lubavitch. What was a group of Orthodox Jews doing in India?

Helping Jews be better Jews. Sometimes called "ultra-orthodox" due to their penchant for traditional hats, beards, not to mention their strict adherence to Talmudic teachings, Lubavitchers like those based at Nariman House try to get Jews—Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox—to be more devout. * To that end, they set up shop in far-flung parts of the world to offer hard-to-find services like kosher meals, synagogue services, and classes on Jewish thought, mysticism, and law. (Gavriel Holtzberg, the rabbi killed in Mumbai, was also a certified kosher butcher.) Some of their services, however, are nonreligious. They provide workspace, Internet access, day care, and, in the case of Nariman House, hotel rooms. Visitors to the Mumbai center tend to be Jewish business travelers, backpackers, and members of the Indian Jewish community, but non-Jews are also welcome. Most of the services are free, although donations are accepted.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty. Click image to expand.

Outreach serves a messianic purpose, too. Since its founding in Russia in the 18th century, the Chabad movement has had seven rebbes—Yiddish for rabbi. The most recent of them, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, preached that there was cosmic significance in getting Jews to be more observant. Every time a Jew performs a mitzvah, a religious act such as lighting the Shabbat candles or wearing tefillin, he or she hastens the arrival of the moshiah, or Messiah, and brings the day of redemption that much closer. (There are a total of 613 mitzvahs.) Non-Jews can also hasten the Messiah's arrival by following the seven Noahide Laws laid out in the Torah. That said, Lubavitchers aren't interested in converting people to Judaism. The movement became controversial after Schneerson's death in 1994, when some members of the sect argued that Schneerson himself was the moshiah. However, most Lubavitchers believe he has not yet arrived. In order to reach the most Jews possible, the movement went global. The Lubavitch community is based in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. (If a man with a beard approaches you in the New York subway and asks, "Are you Jewish?" he's probably Chabad-Lubavitch.) But after succeeding his father-in-law as rebbe in the 1950s, Schneerson started sending missionaries, or shluchim, around the world. They now have more than 900 centers everywhere from Morocco to Bangkok to Shanghai. Passover services in Nepal attracted more than 1,500 people this year.

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Explainer thanks Rabbi Yonah Blum, Samuel Heilman of Queens College, and David Rotbard.

Correction, Dec. 4, 2008: This article originally stated that Lubavitchers wear long side curls, or payos. They keep that hair short. (Return to the corrected sentence.)

Christopher Beam is a writer living in Beijing.

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