'No One Should Pray in Fear': Politicians, Jewish Organizations Decry Poway Attack

Leaders offer Jewish community support 'as their worst nightmare unfolds' after woman killed at Chabad congregation by shooter who reportedly said he was inspired by recent attacks in Christchurch and Pittsburgh

Hand-written notes are displayed on a light post across the street from the Chabad of Poway Synagogue after a shooting in Poway, California, April 27, 2019.
Sandy Huffaker/AFP

U.S. President Donald Trump, other elected officials and Jewish leaders have condemned a shooting at a San Diego synagogue that killed a woman and wounded three others on Saturday, as worshippers celebrated the last day of a the Jewish holiday of Passover.

"No one should have to fear going to their place of worship, and no one should be targeted for practicing the tenets of their faith," California Gov. Gavin Newsom said.

>> Gunman opens fire near San Diego synagogue; one killed, three wounded

Trump decried what he called an anti-Semitic attack, exactly six months since 11 people were killed at a Pittsburgh synagogue in the deadliest assault on Jews in U.S. history. He said shooting "looked like a hate crime," adding it was "hard to believe."

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said the shooting "is yet another painful reminder that anti-Semitism and hatred of Jews is still with us, everywhere. No country and no society are immune."

Rivlin stressed that "Only through education for Holocaust remembrance and tolerance can we deal with this plague."

"Our hearts are with the Gilbert Kaye family, who have lost their dear Lori, with the families of the injured and with the whole community. We are with you in these difficult times," Rivlin added.

People hug next to police tape across the street from the Chabad of Poway Synagogue after a shooting in Poway, California, April 27, 2019.
Sandy Huffaker/AFP

The chairman of Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial, Avner Shalev, condemned the shooting and added "In recent months, we have witnessed a distressing resurgence in incidents of anti-Semitic attacks."  "On every continent, violence against Jews, merely because they are Jews, occurs," he said.

Vice President Mike Pence said in a tweet: "We condemn in the strongest terms the evil & cowardly shooting at Chabad of Poway today as Jewish families celebrated Passover. No one should be in fear in a house of worship."

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said on Twitter that she stands with the Jewish community against "this act of hate."

Former vice president and 2020 Democratic hopeful Joe Biden tweeted that he was "devastated to hear" about the shooting. "No one should have to worship in fear. As a country, we must speak out against bigotry and gun violence." 

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas decried the fact that "we are once again faced with appalling reports of an anti-Semitic hate crime."
Maas sent his condolences to the families of the victims, and added that "The attack on the Chabad of Poway synagogue is an attack on all of us."

The mayor of Poway also denounced what he called a hate crime. "I want you know to you this is not Poway," Mayor Steve Vaus said. "We always walk with our arms around each other and we will walk through this tragedy with our arms around each other."

Pittsburgh's Tree of Life synagogue issued a statement, saying "This must stop. It was only six months ago to the day that we became members of that tragic club of community-based shootings to which no one wants to belong."

A San Diego County Sheriff’s Deputy secures the scene of a shooting incident at the Congregation Chabad synagogue in Poway, north of San Diego, California, U.S., April 27, 2019.
John Gastaldo/Reuters

"We know first-hand the fear, anguish and healing process such an atrocity causes, and our hearts are with the afflicted San Diego families and their congregation," it added. "These senseless acts of violence and prejudice must end. Enough is enough!"

Meanwhile, Pittsburgh's Public Safety Department said it was monitoring the situation and would increase security as necessary. It urged members of the public to remain vigilant and alert emergency officials if they saw anything suspicious.

"We understand this heartache all too well," Public Safety Director Wendell Hissrich said in a news release. "Our thoughts are with those in the San Diego area, and our actions locally are and will continue to be focused on keeping everyone safe."

The World Jewish Congress' President Ronald Lauder said in a statement: “Our thoughts and prayers are with the Jewish community of Poway, California today as their worst nightmare unfolds. … There is no room for such hate-filled violence in our society."

"We are devastated by the news of another synagogue shooting, this time during Passover services," Jewish Democratic Council of America Executive Director Halie Soifer said. "We reaffirm our commitment to combatting the anti-Semitism, hate crimes, and gun violence that has plagued our communities, places of worship, and schools. … No one should pray in fear."

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, said the "heartbreaking" attack "is a reminder of the enduring virulence of anti-Semitism. It must serve as a call to action for us as a society to deal once and for all with this hate."

"From Charleston to Pittsburgh to Oak Creek and from Christchurch to Sri Lanka, and now Poway, we need to say 'enough is enough,'" He added. "Our leaders need to stand united against hate and address it both on social media and in our communities."

Neighborhood residents and members of the media stand before the Chabad of Poway Synagogue after a shooting in Poway, California, April 27, 2019.
Sandy Huffaker/AFP

Sara J. Bloomfield, director of the National Holocaust Memorial Museum, said "moving forward this must serve as yet another wake-up call that anti-Semitism is a growing and deadly menace. The Holocaust is a reminder of the dangers of unchecked anti-Semitism and the way hate can infect a society."

Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, said that "anti-Semitism continues to raise its head and take victims," calling for "a determined war" against it following the attack.

He also apparently hinted at a recent controversy involving the New York Times, which apologized for publishing a cartoon in its opinion column that many readers said bore anti-Semitic tropes. "The words, the demonstrators and the cartoons turn into shootings against worshipers in synagogues," Danon said.

The 19-year-old suspect in the shooting has been identified as John Earnest. He used an AR-type assault weapon to shoot worshippers at Chabad of Poway, San Diego County Sheriff William Gore told reporters.

In an online manifesto filled with racist, anti-Semitic ranting and biblical quotations published hours before the shooting, Earnest wrote that he had also responsible for setting a local mosque on fire a month earlier.

The mosque, located just nine miles away from the Chabad synagogue, was spray-painted with messages referring to the Christchurch, New Zealand mosque shooting.

Gore said Earnest had no prior arrests, adding his department will work with the FBI and the city of Escondido to investigate Earnest's possible connection to an arson that caused property damage at Dar-ul-Arqam mosque last month but no injuries.

In Earnest's open letter, which was posted to a right-wing internet forum, he said he was inspired both by the New Zealand mosque attack and the Tree of Life synagogue shooting.

As the shooter fled, an off-duty Border Patrol agent inside the synagogue opened fire, missing him but striking his getaway vehicle in the city of Poway, just over 20 miles (32 kilometers) north of San Diego, Gore said.

The gunman called 911 shortly afterward to report the shooting, San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit said. When an officer reached the man on a roadway, "the suspect pulled over, jumped out of his car with his hands up and was immediately taken into custody," Nisleit said.

Gore said he couldn't provide a motive while investigators interrogate the suspect, who is white. Authorities say they were reviewing copies of his social media posts.

A girl and two men were wounded as the Jewish congregation gathered for Passover, a weeklong commemoration of the deliverance of the ancient Hebrews from slavery in Egypt.

There was no known threat after the man was detained, but authorities boosted patrols at places of worship as a precaution, police said.

An interfaith vigil was held at the nearby Rancho Bernardo Community Presbyterian Church Saturday evening. According to the San Diego Union Tribune, 900 people of Jewish, Muslim and Christian denominations gathered together in solidarity for a service followed by a candlelight vigil.  

Donny Phonea, who lives across the street from the synagogue, turned off his power drill and heard someone shout, "Police!" Then he heard three or four shots.

The 38-year-old bank auditor looked over his backyard fence facing the synagogue and saw people hiding behind an electrical box in the parking lot of a neighboring church. At that point, he knew something was "very, very wrong," went inside and closed his doors and garage.

"I'm a little taken aback," said Phonea, who moved to Poway two weeks ago. "I moved here because safety was a factor. Poway is very safe."

Minoo Anvari, a member of the synagogue, told media outlets that her husband was inside during the shooting. She said he called to tell her the shooter was shouting and cursing.

She called the shooting "unbelievable" in a peaceful and tight-knit community. "We are strong; you can't break us," she said.

24-year-old Shelomoh Barr, who has attended Chabad of Poway over the past year, told Haaretz he is "very much in shock this happened," describing the congregation's rabbis as "the warmest and sweetest people one could ever meet."

"We see this on the news all the time but I feel deep down we never think it’s going to happen to our synagogues or places of worship," Barr added.

Four people were brought to Palomar Health Medical Center Hospital, spokesman Derryl Acosta said. A woman died of her wounds, and a girl and two men were in stable condition, authorities said. Their names weren't released.

In Pittsburgh, a truck driver who authorities say expressed hatred of Jews has been charged in the Oct. 27 rampage at the Tree of Life synagogue. He's pleaded not guilty.