POWAY, California — Powerful renditions of “God Bless America” and the Jewish hymn “Shalom Aleichem” rang out Sunday evening during an emotional and patriotic vigil near the synagogue where, just a day earlier, a teenage shooter killed a longtime congregant and wounded three others, including the Orthodox shul’s beloved rabbi.
In addition to mourning the loss of 61-year-old Lori Gilbert-Kaye, some 600 people at a park just down the street from the Chabad of Poway celebrated what Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein called “a miracle of miracles”: That the assault rifle of the 19-year-old gunman jammed moments after he entered the synagogue at around 11 A.M. and started firing as a larger group of congregants than usual marked the last day of Passover.
Some reports have suggested that the attacker, John Earnest, entered the shul yelling anti-Semitic rhetoric, while local law enforcement officers are investigating the authenticity of a white nationalist manifesto he allegedly posted online before the attack. The San Diego resident is also suspected of being involved in a recent arson attack on a nearby mosque.
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“You’re listening to a rabbi that today could have been my funeral,” Goldstein, his left arm held in a sling and hands wrapped with bandages, told mourners. “What happened this Saturday morning, the unthinkable and unfathomable: I faced death face to face.”
He recounted to attendees — many of them members of other local Jewish communities — the horrific story of how he was speaking with Kaye about mourning her recently passed mother at the day’s Yizkor (memorial) service one moment and in the next, after walking into the nearby banquet hall to wash his hands, he heard a loud noise and found himself face to face with the attacker who then shot off his right index finger.
Per the rabbi’s account, Earnest fired multiple shots as congregants fled before his gun jammed, after which one congregant — former military man Oscar Stewart — charged the attacker and threw a chair at him, causing him to flee outside to his car. An off-duty border patrol agent shot at the car as it sped away. Earnest surrendered soon afterward to local police.
“What I saw then I will never forget: I saw Lori Kaye, lying on the ground unconscious and her husband Howard trying to do CPR on her, fainted. And their daughter Hannah Kaye screaming, ‘Mommy! Daddy!’ This is not supposed to happen. This isn’t Nazi Germany, this isn’t a pogrom,” said Goldstein. This was not the first nor last time that vigil speakers invoked the Holocaust.
Sderot natives Noya Dahan, 8, and her visiting uncle Almog Peretz, 32, were also wounded in the attack. The two are part of what congregants say is a large Israeli community at the Chabad, which was founded by Goldstein in this conservative-learning suburb of San Diego more than 30 years ago.
“Lori Kaye was the example of kindness and she always went out of the way for everyone,” said Goldstein, telling stories of her generosity to fellow Chabad-goers. “She was more about giving than taking, and she did it with such a smile,” he added. Kaye’s funeral will take place on Monday.
A memorial prayer was said for her, while speeches were also given by local rabbis and dignitaries. Speaking at the vigil, a friend of the rabbi’s from a nearby Catholic community suggested that “if the boy had Jesus in his heart” he would not have committed Saturday’s attack.
Goldstein told the mourners he had received an unexpected call in the hospital Sunday afternoon — from the White House. “They said ‘Donald Trump wants to talk to you.’ I said ‘Really? Put him through,’” he recounted, assuming he was being pranked.
President Trump “was so comforting, he brought amazing consolation,” said Goldstein. “I had a 15-minute conversation with him and he spoke to me like a friend, a colleague. We spoke about why is there so much anti-Semitism and we spoke about what we could do to change that — and he asked me for my idea,” he said.
The idea he shared with Trump, Goldstein said, was to require students in local public schools to pray every morning — citing his teacher, Menachem Mendel Schneerson (also known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe).
“Right after Ronald Reagan was shot [in 1981, Schneerson] said we need to reintroduce a moment of silence in the public school system,” Goldstein said. “Children need to start the day off thinking about the greater good, thinking about the Creator,” he told the crowd.
San Diego County State Senator Brian Jones, who also spoke at the vigil, said he would share the idea in Sacramento.
Some attendees, like Richard Stegman, saw a hint of irony in Trump’s show of sympathy for victims of anti-Semitism. The Poway resident and member of the nearby Reform synagogue Temple Adat Shalom said he came to the vigil out of solidarity and to support the community.
“I think Trump is responsible for much of the anti-Semitism that we’re experiencing today,” he told Haaretz. “I look at the white supremacism as bread and Trump being the yeast that has fed it.”
But members of the Chabad congregation had kinder words for the president. “I don’t buy that at all,” said 20-year Chabad of Poway member Phil Raomi. “I think Trump’s been the greatest friend that Jews have had.
“I can’t remember a president that’s been such a good friend to the State of Israel … and I don’t understand how anyone in their right mind could think he’s anti-Semitic. I mean, Ivanka and Jared are Chabadniks themselves,” he added, referring to the president’s Jewish son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and daughter Ivanka Trump, who converted to Judaism.
Also in attendance at the vigil was Poway Mayor Steve Vaus, sporting a tan-colored cowboy hat, alongside the black hats of male Chabad members and local faith leaders from the Chabad’s neighboring nearby Lutheran and Orthodox churches.
“I just want you to know whoever you are, wherever you’re from, God loves you and we love you. And again, to the Chabad of Poway, we love you and we will stand with you now and forever,” said Vaus.
Carmit Weightman, an Israeli immigrant to the San Diego area, appreciated the inclusion of other faith groups at the vigil, suggesting that it was the “Chabad way of doing things.”
“The shooting was so shocking to hear about and I started getting calls from everyone, especially in Israel,” she said. “I think there are too many guns and kids that don’t know what…” She trailed off before adding, “Guns here are just too available.”
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