Editor’s Note: Seattle businesswoman Paula Begoun, founder of Paula’s Choice skin care products, regularly travels to remote destinations and has often visited Chabad Houses in different countries. Before leaving for a trip to Mumbai, her second, at the end of last month, she wrote this letter to Chaim and Techiya Levine of the LivingJudaism organization.
I was in Mumbai last year, May 2008. As I often do when I’m in a new city in another country, I went to the Chabad House that was near my hotel. At the time it was just another Chabad House, another shul, another opportunity to connect with Jews in a relatively remote part of the world (well, remote for me). I had been to so many Chabad houses over the years from Sydney, to Paris, Toronto, Beijing, Mexico City, Singapore, Melbourne, and of course Seattle. Like all of them, the Chabad House in Mumbai wasn’t particularly unique and it was barely memorable. When I say not unique, that’s only because I’ve grown accustomed to the warmth and kindness you find at any Chabad House you visit. It’s always a little hectic, always a strange mixture of Jewish travelers from all over the globe and random locals, but regardless, there is always the understanding that as a Jew, no matter who you are and for whatever reason you end up on their doorstep, you are welcomed with no expectation of having to give anything back. We Jews have a home almost everwhere around the globe. That is Chabad.
The rabbi and rebbetzin at the Mumbai Chabad House seemed impossibly young, especially considering their task of building something out of nothing in an area of the world that barely knows what a Jew really looks like. Their building was tucked behind streets you could only describe as slum with goats in doorways, endless small barren shops, crowded alleyways where aimless men and women sat listless and weary, and children ran about barefoot wearing rags in oppressive heat and stagnant air. But most everyone knew where the Chabad House was, as the rabbi and rebbetzin often fed those in need.
When I walked in, there was Rifka with one baby on her hip and another child following behind. She greeted me and my boyfriend, gave us some water and we went through the Jewish game of who you know. The rabbi rushed in after evening prayers and quickly went through the same routine. It was sweet, fun, very Jewish, and remarkable that we were all in downtown Mumbai socializing and being as Jewish as if we were in New York or Jerusalem.
This moment would have come and gone being just another interesting, minor travel episode in my life until a few months later, Thanksgiving weekend 2008, when the news headlines exploded with the terrorist attack in Mumbai. All the places I had been to were part of the terrorists’ murdering rampage. The Taj, where I had stayed, the Oberoi, where I ate, the train station where I traveled, and in the most vicious attack of all, the Chabad House, where the young family representing the best of the Chabad community was slaughtered by malicious mad men armed with a determination and fervor that rivaled any level of insanity you could fathom. The terrorists took more than 50 percent of their group and arsenal to kill a handful of Jews. That was more important, more holy to them than their stated goal of killing as many people as they could. I believe 5,000 was the number they were after. They sacrificed that goal because murdering two or three Jews was more important than any other destruction, annihilation, they could ignite. The depth of such single-minded vile hatred is not something a normal mind can understand, and I don’t want to try to understand. I want to obliterate these atrocities from the world and my memory.
What is left in the wake of this terrorist attack is that a once-simple part of Mumbai is no longer ordinary or benign. But rather, in a twist of appalling fate, the young couple who had blessed it have become unwilling martyrs and I cannot get their faces out of my mind. Their untimely deaths, nauseating in its utter depravity, was completely evil and has no explanation. The death of all the victims on that horrific day has no explanations.
There is no answer from God because this is one of His best-kept secrets we can never know while we are on this earth. So the question isn’t, why? The question is, what can we do now to turn something unholy into something holy? How can we turn evil into goodness? How can we honor the Lord and ourselves? That is our only job, no matter what happens in life. We can choose to bring the holiness of God to any moment.
My choice is to continue to discover meaning in my faith. In the essence of Torah is the hand of God and the path our souls can take to find solace and a way of living with compassion, integrity, and peace.
My choice is to continue supporting Chabad so that Jews have a home all over the world that no one can take away. I choose to support Chabad so those who hate us can’t erase our presence in the world. Chabad’s resolve to create Jewish neighborhoods wherever they can, against all odds, is a beacon in the dark for Jews everywhere.