A Year Later: The Legacy of Pain and Hope From the Poway Synagogue Shooting

The Forward
Sharon Rosen Leib
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A memorial to the shooting victims at the Chabad synagogue in Poway, Calif.
A couple embrace near a growing memorial across the street from the Chabad of Poway synagogue in Poway, Calif., April 29, 2019.Credit: Gregory Bull / AP
The Forward
Sharon Rosen Leib

Standing in front of the ark in an empty sanctuary in Poway, Calif., Dr. Howard Kaye spoke of his late wife of 34 years, Lori Gilbert-Kaye. It has been one year since a gunman shot and killed Gilbert-Kaye inside Chabad of Poway, and the memorial service to mark the event was a virtual one.

“Lori took every mitzvah and every kindness and amped it the highest level to help people of all nations and religions. She was a true universal Yid – always the first person there when someone fell ill,” Dr. Kaye said. Since she died, Dr. Kaye said, he has focused on continuing her legacy through prayer, kind deeds and Torah study.

“I’ve learned that taking the high road is the better way to go,” he said.

On April 26 of last year, John Earnest, 19, stormed Chabad of Poway during a crowded Shabbat service on the last day of Passover toting an AR-15 assault rifle. He spewed anti-Semitic invectives and opened fire, gunning down Gilbert-Kaye, 60, who died at the scene as her husband Dr. Howard Kaye, 67, and daughter Hannah Kaye, 22, stood by helpless to save her.

Earnest’s gunfire injured three others including the congregant’s spiritual leader, Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, 57; Almog Peretz, 34, who was shot in the leg; and his 8-year-old niece, Noya Dahan, who was struck in her face and leg by bullet fragments. The synagogue shooting in upscale, suburban Poway cast a dark shadow over calm, sunny San Diego County and thrust the region into mourning.

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But that violent Saturday also rallied the forces for good. San Diego’s interfaith community mounted an emotional, crowded vigil in a Poway park the following day. At Gilbert-Kaye’s funeral, an overflow crowd of hundreds of mourners, many who had never met her, braved standing in spring rain to honor her legacy. Kaye’s friends and family remembered her as a generous, inclusive, warm woman, known to all in her tight-knit congregation for her compassion and high spirit. Her daughter Hannah, dressed in her mother’s favorite hot pink dress, delivered a searing, eloquent eulogy that went viral.

The community’s solidarity left a lasting impression on Scott Peters, an outspoken gun-control advocate who represents Poway in Congress and attended Gilbert-Kaye’s vigil. The son of a Lutheran minister, Peters remains troubled by the persistent lack of political will to enact tougher gun laws.

“My father taught me to be a person of peace and oppose all forms of violence. The least we can do for people who’ve been through these tragic losses is to prevent weapons of war from falling into the hands of haters,” he said by phone from Washington, D.C.

Until that time comes, San Diego synagogues and other houses of worship have increased security. “The Jewish community here has changed. People are more afraid,” Tammy Gillies, the Anti-Defamation League’s San Diego regional director, said. She considers the Chabad of Poway attack a wakeup call.

“Law enforcement is more focused on lone wolf White Supremacists being recruited online, especially now when people are quarantined sitting home on their computers,” she said.

Gillies makes an effort to see silver linings. “The shooting has brought the Jewish and interfaith communities together and provoked ongoing, meaningful conversations about the persistent threat of anti-Semitism and how we can build bridges to prevent it,” she said.

Chabad of Poway’s congregation has been riven by the attack. Rabbi Goldstein, who was shot in both hands and lost his index finger, stepped down in November 2019. One of his five sons, Rabbi Mendel Goldstein, replaced him.

San Diego county sheriff's deputy stands in front of the Poway Chabad Synagogue in Poway, California, April 28, 2019. Credit: Denis Poroy,AP

In December 2019, Almog Peretz, who recovered from his injuries, sued the congregation alleging it failed to use federal funds received a month before the shooting to beef up security and protect its congregants. On the day of the attack, the synagogue’s doors were unlocked, and no guards, gates or other security measures were in place. Due to the pending litigation, Chabad of Poway has refrained from comment.

In March 2020, the San Diego District Attorney’s Office announced it would seek the death penalty against Earnest, a former nursing student. This move appeared to be at odds with Hannah Kaye’s declaration at her mother’s funeral that Gilbert-Kaye would have forgiven him. The District Attorney’s decision to charge Earnest with a capital offense also challenges the spirit of California Governor Gavin Newsom’s March 2019 executive order placing a moratorium on executions and will further delay Earnest’s trial – delays already extended by court closures due to the coronavirus.

Chabad of Poway’s tragic intersection of violent anti-Semitism, failed gun-control legislation, alleged security lapses and justice deferred due to California’s ongoing death penalty debate has been heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic. The global health crisis limited the congregation to marking the anniversary of Gilbert-Kaye’s death with a tightly choreographed 45-minute, pre-recorded tribute to her streamed Sunday, April 26, on Chabad’s website. Rabbi Mendel Goldstein opened the ceremony standing before Chabad of Poway’s ark in an empty sanctuary.

Hannah Kaye, Lori and Howard’s only child, did not record remarks for the memorial service. According to Chabad congregants, Hannah’s deep and ongoing grief made sharing memories of her beloved mother on camera too difficult.

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Great Britain’s former Chief Rabbi and member of the House of Lords, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, recorded a tribute to Gilbert-Kaye, who admired him as a spiritual and intellectual leader. He urged viewers to consider Lori a role model of good character and incorporate her philosophy into their lives. “Our Jewish genius is to take a crisis and turn it into a blessing – to redeem some of the pain, lessen the grief and soothe the trauma. The Jewish way is to become stronger,” he said.

The final rabbi to speak, Chabad of New York’s Yosef Jacobson, delivered an impassioned message. “None of us will forget the courage and resolve Chabad of Poway demonstrated. The community blazed a path of how the world should respond to hatred, racism and violence,” he said.

Rabbi Jacobson praised Yisroel Goldstein for facing the media immediately after the attack with two of his fingers missing. “In the absence of his index finger, he taught millions of Jews how we can point our fingers toward heaven and unite all of us to discover our shared humanity,” Rabbi Jacobson said.

He linked his message to the ongoing impact of the coronavirus pandemic. “Earth is demanding us to question our values and ask who am I, what is sacred, what am I ready to fight for,” he said. Rabbi Jacobson closed with a call to action on Gilbert-Kaye’s behalf. “Love, honesty and the authentic values Lori embodied, lived and died for must inspire us to rise to this occasion to create a new consciousness and emerge into a new world dedicated to our shared humanity,” he urged.

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