Three young men stood next to a freezer full of dead chickens on the first floor of a burned-out building in Mumbai. The freezer had been defrosted six weeks earlier, when the Indian army cut off electricity to the house so that the gun-toting terrorists who shot the residents dead couldn’t see what they were doing as the light drained from the sky and commandos took positions on the roofs of nearby buildings and the neighbors massed, frantic, on the narrow dirt paths. The terrorists were gone, the residents were gone, and the commandos were gone, but the chickens were still there. This was a big problem. The three young men discussed how best to dispose of the inert, hulking block and its decomposing contents.
Three young men stood next to a freezer full of dead chickens on the first floor of a burned-out building in Mumbai. The freezer had been defrosted six weeks earlier, when the Indian army cut off electricity to the house so that the gun-toting terrorists who shot the residents dead couldn’t see what they were doing as the light drained from the sky.
The building was called Nariman House, and it had been a Jewish community center run by Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivka, both members of Chabad-Lubavitch, a Hasidic Jewish group based in Brooklyn. Then, in November of 2008, ten men armed with hand grenades, assault rifles, and plastic explosives invaded Mumbai, paralyzing the city of fourteen million people for over sixty hours. What happened during that time is well known: waves of police were driven back from luxury hotels by the attackers while the buildings burned and guests were shot and blown apart. Blood collected in the mortar-seams between the cobblestones on the sidewalks of Colaba Causeway, the main thoroughfare in the tourist area where the attackers did their work. And on a dirt-strewn road just off the causeway, Sandra Samuels, a worker at Nariman House, escaped from the building with the Holtzbergs’ two-year-old son, Moshe, in her arms. Later, commandos rappelled from a helicopter onto Nariman’s roof while missiles and machine-gun fire cleared the way for their assault on the terrorists. When the fighting was over, the rabbi and his wife—who was six months pregnant at the time—were found dead at the scene, along with their four guests and the well-trained men who killed them. The final citywide death toll was one hundred sixty-five.
Six weeks later, on a Sunday in January, I was in Mumbai with the three young men, two of them representatives from Chabad who had taken charge, for the time being, of the group’s affairs in the city, and the other a dedicated volunteer. The ruined freezer and its putrid smell—a novel combination of the sweetness of kerosene, the acid of urine, and the effusive ripeness of a dumpster—posed a challenge. But at least the question of how the freezer got full of dead chickens was one that could be answered, a problem that could be solved: because no Indian butchers produced meat kosher enough for Chabad standards, Rabbi Holtzberg used to periodically slaughter a few hundred birds in strict accordance with Jewish ritual, to feed his family and the Chabad house’s many guests, and he killed a clutch of fowl on the day the shooters came. But the destruction in Nariman House—the cracked slate flooring, the soot of grenade blasts, the abstractions of blood on the walls—conjured up problems that would not be solved, questions that began with why instead of with how, and thus only echoed unanswered.
Two of the young men standing by the fridge that day, Menachem Mendel Kessler and Menachem Mendel Sputz, were twenty-two years old and dressed identically, in Chabad’s typical style of dark suits with white, open-necked dress shirts and black fedoras. Underneath their garments, they wore the tallit katan, a fringed undershirt, which fulfills the commandment from Deuteronomy to “make yourself twisted threads on the four corners of your garment.” There are 613 commandments issued in the Torah, and, like all religious Jews, Kessler and Sputz must follow each one.
They share their first names with Chabad’s spiritual leader, Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, who led the Lubavitchers until his death in 1994. At the beginning of his tenure, in the 1950s, Chabad was one of a handful of Hasidic groups that settled, after the Holocaust, in Brooklyn, where they clustered in enclaves, avoiding the Gentile world and the less orthodox Jews within it. Rebbe Schneerson, however, encouraged willing members of Chabad to leave the community in Crown Heights and foster religious observance among the Jews outside. These outreach efforts became focused around “Chabad houses” like Nariman House, where a husband-and-wife team, called shluchim, or emissaries, offer Sabbath meals, teach classes, and promote adherence to God’s commandments. Today there are 3,300 such Chabad houses throughout the world, and Chabad-Lubavitch has become an influential force in Jewish life.
To reduce confusion when they are together, Menachem Mendel Kessler goes by “Mendy” and Menachem Mendel Sputz by “Menachem.” Physically speaking, they’re a classic odd couple. Mendy Kessler can bench-press three hundred and fifty pounds and his powerful frame is encased in a thick layer of flesh. Menachem Sputz is taller and has a slender grace to match the narrow pinstripes of his suit. Tendrils of hair on his cheeks climb upwards toward the glinting light of his eyes.
The two men grew up a few blocks from each other, in Montreal’s Jewish community, where Kessler’s father runs a Chabad house not unlike Nariman, and Sputz’s father directs a rabbinical college. They were drawn to outreach work early in their lives. The two had visited Chabad houses in India before; together, they’d looked after Nariman House during periods when Gavi Holtzberg and his wife went to visit family overseas, so they were familiar with its operations and the city’s frenetic pace.
In November, they’d both been living in New York. The first Chabad rabbi who arrived in Mumbai during the attacks was Rabbi Dov Goldberg, the group’s emissary to Goa, a seaside region popular with Israeli backpackers. After the commandos cleared Nariman House, Rabbi Goldberg found the bodies of his friends the Holtzbergs. Speaking at their funeral, he said, “I looked at him and understood that I was the one who would need to make sure that Chabad House lives on.” He was quoted in newspaper articles saying, “Jewish life will continue to be strong here,” and “We are staying at the same center and will rebuild it even nicer than it was,” but within a few weeks he’d gone home. “I think he was affected, emotionally,” Mendy Kessler told me. “These things are not fun to be around.”
Not long afterward, Kessler and Sputz received calls from high-level Chabad rabbis who requested that they take over operations in Mumbai, on a temporary basis, until a new husband-and-wife team could be found. The two men were charged with providing Sabbath meals for traveling Jews, finding a new building to rent until Nariman House was repaired, and interacting with the city’s native Jewish population and the local authorities.
“Not a lot of guys with families want to come here right now,” Mendel Kessler said. “My parents were not so happy, but they understood why it would be us.”
“We didn’t hesitate, not even for a second,” said Menachem Sputz.
I once asked Mendy if he had ever considered getting some kind of weapon for protection. “Yeah, we thought about it. We have this friend who’s skilled with a butterfly knife, and he was supposed to show us all this stuff. But he didn’t get one in time. Then we have this other friend who was supposed to take us shooting. But we never got to that, either. So we’re just doing our thing here.” It was difficult to picture Kessler or Sputz wielding a butter knife, much less a loaded handgun.