Rabbi Wounded in San Diego Synagogue Shooting: 'I Cannot Erase That Face From My Mind'

The fingers of Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein were blown off by the bullets as he raised his hand in front of the attacker. He tells NBC: 'We will not be intimidated or deterred by this terror'

Flowers and signs sit at a memorial across the street from the Chabad of Poway synagogue in Poway, Calif., on Sunday, April 28, 2019.
Denis Poroy,AP

Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, who was wounded when a 19-year-old gunman opened fire inside a synagogue near San Diego killing one and injuring him and two others, spoke to NBC's "Today" shortly after undergoing surgery on Sunday and called for "everyone to stand up and do something in the face of terror."

"I heard a large banging, a large noise, I thought a table fell. I turned around and found myself face to face with this murderer terrorist," Goldstein told NBC on the phone from the hospital, where doctors are trying to save the index finger of his left hand. "He was holding the rifle and walking straight at me. As soon as he saw me he started to shoot towards me. That's when I put my hands up and my fingers got blown away, and then he continued on and killed Lori Gilbert-Kaye," he said with a sigh, referiring to the 60-year-old woman who lost her life in the shooting. The index finger from Goldstein's right hand was lost.

Goldstein then led a group of children, including his grand-daughter, to safety. "I just ran not even knowing my fingers were blown off, to get the children outside," he told NBC. "I continued the sermon outside as we were sheltering and waiting for authorities to arrive. I spoke from my heart to give everyone courage. Seventy years ago during the Holocaust we were gunned down by this, we are not gonna let this happen here," he said.

"Fortunately there was an off-duty patrol officer who came in pursuit of this terrorist," he added. 

Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein is a rabbi with the worldwide Chabad-Lubavitch movement, which emphasizes outreach and education to other Jews, and as chaplain tended to the “spiritual needs” of Jews on the force, according to the webpage CrownHeightsinfo.com.

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As chaplain, he for many years counseled deputies regardless of faith who required help healing after witnessing shootings or child deaths. He explained that witnessing tragedies on the job, including shootings or child deaths, can be traumatic. Often, deputies require counseling to help them through the healing process, and Goldstein makes himself available, regardless of the deputies’ creed.

During the interview, Goldstein also spoke about Lori Gilbert-Kaye, the woman who was killed in the attack. "Lori Kaye was a pioneering founding member of this congregation," he said. "She was a kind soul, everyone in the community knew her. She is such a dear friend. I am heartbroken for such senseless killing. We will not be intimidated or deterred by this terror, terror will not win," he said.

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"As Americans we cannot cower in the face of the senseless hate that is in anti-Semitism," he added. Asked about whether the attacker spoke to him, Goldstein said "Not a word, but I cannot erase that face from my mind, I cannot erase that moment." 

The shooting came exactly six months since a shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue killed 11 people in the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history.

San Diego County Sheriff William Gore told reporters that the suspect who had opened fire on the congregation with an assault weapon was a 19-year-old white man who lived in San Diego County. The suspect was later identified as John Earnest.

"Everyone needs to be a hero, everyone needs to stand up and do something in the face of terror," Rabbi Goldstein concluded.

The Forward contributed to this report