After Synagogue Shooting, Poway Jewish Community Mourns: ‘We’re So Afraid’

‘Whether it's a mosque or a church or a synagogue, it just makes no sense'

Executive Director Rabbi Ysrael Goldstein hugs his congregants after a press conference outside the Chabad of Poway Synagogue, Poway, California, April 28, 2019
AFP

The Torah service was just wrapping up at Chabad of Poway, a town some 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of San Diego, when Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein heard a loud noise. He left the sanctuary and entered the synagogue hall to find himself looking into the eyes of a teenager holding an assault rifle.

The synagogue was more crowded than usual, filled with some 40 congregants and a dozen children. It was Shabbat morning and the last day of Passover, with the Yizkor memorial service for deceased relatives set to begin.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 25Haaretz

As the rabbi raised his arms, the attacker shot Goldstein’s fingers on both hands. Eyewitnesses say Lori Kaye, a 61-year-old founding member of the community, then jumped in front of the rabbi to protect him. She was shot and killed.

Kaye leaves behind a husband — a physician who fainted Saturday after realizing the gunshot victim on whom he was performing CPR was his wife — as well as a daughter. She was at shul to say kaddish for her recently deceased mother. 

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“Lori was just the most amazing tzaddika. She made so many acts of kindness,” Debra Trestman, a fellow member of the community, told Haaretz.

Like many of her fellow congregants, on Sunday Trestman to the home of the junior rabbi for morning services, in order to pray, check in on friends and exchange stories of what happened the previous day.

Hundreds attend vigil in Poway after synagogue shootingHaaretz

“My daughter had just hugged Lori when she walked away, and then jumped in front of the rabbi,” Trestman said, adding that she and her husband stayed on the ground with Kaye’s husband until emergency personnel arrived.

“Lori was an incredible person, a friend to everyone. She and her husband were at Chabad services every single Saturday unless they were traveling, which was usually to Israel. The shul meant everything to her,” said Ilona Medwied, who is 82 and has known Kaye for many years.

The Orthodox synagogue, founded in 1986 according to its website, is affiliated with the Hasidic Chabad movement. Its building is nestled in the winding streets of Poway, which bills itself as “the city in the country” and where the mayor boasts wearing a cowboy hat.

Members say the congregation is diverse in both age and observance, with many young Israeli immigrant families mixing with a generation of older founding members. Some own homes nearby and walk to the shul on Shabbat, while others drive in from other neighborhoods.

Shiel Gayler, who is 89 and volunteers as a shamash to facilitate Torah reading at the synagogue, came away from the shooting with just a scrape.

Yet he broke down in wails and tears to find out Sunday morning that it was Kaye who was lying on the floor, receiving emergency treatment.

“I was on the bima with another gentleman, on each side of the torah, when we hit the floor. The rabbi was behind us at a table,” he said. “Once the shooting stopped, I saw him running with his tallit, just soaked in blood. He wanted to make sure that the congregants were all in good shape.

“The people in the congregation are strong,” Gayler added. “That some mishegas comes along and thinks that he’s going to harm us like that, my God.”

People gathering on a street corner hold signs in support of the victims of the Chabad of Poway synagogue shooting, Poway, California, April 28, 2019.
Denis Poroy,AP

His wife, Trish Gaylor, added: “I just can't believe it. I get so angry when I hear about these things whether it’s a mosque, or a church, or a synagogue. I mean why, why? It makes no sense.”

The attack came exactly six months after 11 people were gunned down at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Squirrel Hill, Pennsylvania. Last month, a mass shooting at two New Zealand mosques left 50 dead. And just last week, church bombings in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday killed 253 people.

‘We’re fearful’

The gunman was identified by local law enforcement as John Earnest, a 19-year-old resident of San Diego. In a statement Saturday night, San Diego County Sheriff’s Department said they were also investigating the possibility of the shooter's involvement in the arson of a nearby mosque last month. The department said it would be providing extra patrols at places of worship this weekend, asking the public to “remain vigilant and report suspicious activity.”

Saturday’s attack came as a shock to community members. The synagogue did not have a guard on duty at the time and for some, it was not only an illustration of the alarming rise in anti-Semitic violence in the United States, but also proof that security is needed at all places of worship. 

“This hits home for me, these shootings and horrible violent attacks,” said Ilona Medwied, who came to the United States with her mother in 1949, after surviving the Holocaust by hiding in various homes of Christian families in Poland.

Though she wasn’t at the synagogue Saturday, Medwied frequently attends and has known Kaye for years. “For us Holocaust survivors, this cannot be happening again. We’re just so afraid for our children and our grandchildren. What is this world coming to?” she asked.

Trestman, who has worked for the military and been a longtime member of the community, frequently practices active shooter drills with her three kids. She said her 15-year-old daughter, who was watching the congregation’s children during the attack, recognized the sound of gunshots and told the kids to run out of the building.

More people were on their way to the synagogue for the Yizhar service but had not yet arrived when the shooter came, she said, one of the “many miracles that day.”

“We’re fearful. I’m fearful … my kids didn’t sleep at all last night,” she said, linking hate against the visibly Orthodox Jewish community to a toxic environment regarding Israel on campuses of the local university which both the shooter and her son had attended.

Susan Lipton, a writer and member of the local community who heard the gunfire while having breakfast with her family on Saturday, described an impromptu interfaith vigil hosted by a local church and attended by Muslims, Christians and Jews.

“Hundreds of caring people from houses of worship from all over San Diego County — who assembled with only an hour’s notice, on a Saturday night, with many children attending, too. The service was very moving … and congregants introduced themselves to strangers, saying, ‘Peace be with you,’ while looking warmly into a stranger-friend’s eyes.

“Last night I felt safer in a church,” she said, adding: “It shows that we Jews are not alone in standing up to hatred and white nationalists. In my opinion, interfaith relations is what we should and must focus on now.”