It was about 11:30 on Shabbos morning, the eighth day of Pesach, and about 100 people were present for davening at the Chabad shul of Poway, a California suburban town with a population of 50,000 about 25 miles north of San Diego. The shul’s founding rabbi, Yisroel Goldstein, age 57, was in the foyer of the shul’s banquet hall, preparing to speak at the Yizkor service, when he heard a deafening bang.
He recalled initially fearing the sound might have been the result of an accident befalling a long-time congregant, Mrs. Lori Kaye, whom he had spoken with just moments before, and who was present with her husband and their 22-year-old daughter to say Yizkor for her mother.
But when he turned to look, Rabbi Goldstein didn’t see her. Instead, he saw a 19-year-old man, later identified as John T. Earnest, wearing sunglasses and holding an AR-15 assault rifle, which was the source of the loud sound. Rabbi Goldstein didn’t see Mrs. Kaye, who had been fatally shot, and was lying on the ground unconscious. Witnesses later said that Mrs. Kaye had deliberately put herself in the line of fire to protect her rabbi.
Rabbi Goldstein recalled being frightened by the shooter, who had entered the building moments before, yelling that Jews were ruining the world and shooting his semi-automatic rifle, because, “I couldn’t see his eyes. I couldn’t see his soul.” The gunman was moving in Rabbi Goldstein’s direction, so he instinctively moved forward to grab the gun while the gunman was still pulling the trigger. The bullets ripped through his hand, amputating one of his index fingers. Suddenly, Rabbi Goldstein said, the gun “miraculously jammed.”
But considerable damage had already been done. Mrs. Kaye was dying, while her husband, Dr. Howard Kaye, who had been summoned from the men’s section of the shul to give her first aid, fainted from the shock of realizing that the victim to whom he was administrating CPR was his wife. After seeing the tragedy that had befallen her parents, their daughter ran from the shul, screaming. Eight-year-old Noya Dahan and her 34-year-old uncle, Almog Peretz, who had been visiting from Israel, had also been lightly wounded by flying shrapnel.
SHUL MEMBERS FIGHT BACK
Rabbi Goldstein, his mangled hand bleeding profusely, began leading a group of young children in the synagogue, including his own granddaughter, outside to safety, while Jonathan Morales, an off-duty Border Patrol officer, who was also in shul for Yizkor, and Oscar Stewart, an Iraq war veteran, confronted the shooter.
Witnesses said that Earnest dropped his gun (which he wore on a sling) and sprinted to his car when he saw Stewart charging towards him while yelling at the top of his voice, “Get down! … I’m going to kill you!”
When the shooter ran, Stewart immediately gave chase.
Stewart, 51, told The Daily Caller on Sunday he doesn’t remember exactly what happened. The Iraq combat veteran just reacted on instinct and allow his military training to kick in to stop the shooter and prevent him from leaving the shul and hurting more people somewhere else.
“I knew I had to be within five feet of this guy so his rifle couldn’t get to me,” Stewart said. “So I ran immediately toward him, and I yelled as loud as I could. And he was scared. I [really] scared him.”
“Looking back, it was kind of a crazy idea to do, but I did it,” Stewart added. He served in the US Navy from 1990 to 1994, and then enlisted in the Army in 2001 because of the Sept. 11 terror attacks. He was deployed to Iraq in 2003 and left the military in 2004, as a staff sergeant, and now does construction work.
When Stewart heard the gunman opened fire, he was in the back of the synagogue. By the time he got to the shooter, he had fatally shot Mrs. Kaye, blown the finger off of Rabbi Goldstein’s hand and wounded little Noya Dahan and her uncle.
“I heard gunshots,” Stewart said. “And everybody got up and started trying to get out the back door, so I—for whatever reason—didn’t do that. I ran the other way. I ran towards the gunshots.
“When I came around the corner into the lobby area, I saw the individual with a gun, and he fired two rounds. And I yelled at him as loud as I could in my mean sergeant voice. He looked at me, and I must have had a really mean look on my face or something, because he immediately dropped his weapon and turned and ran. He was a coward. And then I gave chase.”
Morales, who attended shul armed, at Rabbi Goldstein’s request, fired at the shooter as he fled, missing him but striking his vehicle. Stewart said that Morales’ covering fire “may have saved his life” as he was charging the vehicle unarmed. Stewart also said, “I was an instrument of G-d. I had no conscious effort in what I was doing.”
Rabbi Goldstein explained at a press conference the next day that “Morales recently discovered his Jewish roots. He would travel three-and-a-half hours from El Centro to pray with us at our shul. He felt this was his house of worship. And many times, I said, ‘Jonathan, you work for the border patrol. Please arm yourself when you are here; we never know when we will need it.’”
Shortly after fleeing, Earnest called 911 to report the shooting, San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit said. Earnest reported his location on Interstate 15 in Rancho Bernardo, and surrendered to a K9 police officer who was responding to the attack. “The suspect pulled over, jumped out of his car with his hands up and was immediately taken into custody,” the police chief said.
RALLYING THE SHUL IN THE FACE OF TRAGEDY
When Rabbi Goldstein saw Mrs. Kaye and her husband lying next to each other on the floor of his shul, “It was the most heart-wrenching sight I could have seen,” he said. “I was frozen in time.”
Moments after bystanders chased the shooter from the shul, the wounded Rabbi Goldstein, his bloodied hand in a tallis, stood up on a chair and tried to calm his panicked congregants. “Am Yisroel Chai! We are a Jewish nation that will stand tall,” he declared, “We will not let anyone take us down. Terrorism like this will not take us down.”
Rabbi Goldstein and the two other lightly wounded victims were transported for treatment to a local hospital. Rabbi Goldstein had lost his right index finger to one of the bullets and underwent several hours of surgery as doctors did what they could to treat his mangled hands.
SAVING THE CHILDREN
Almog Peretz, another wounded shooting victim, told an Israeli reporter that he had been visiting with his family, which had moved eight years ago to San Diego from the town of Sderot to escape the recurring barrages of rocket fire from Gaza, and that the reactions he developed dodging rocket fire had helped him respond quickly to the threat from the shooter in shul.
“A person with a big rifle, like an M16, entered the synagogue and started shooting everywhere,” Peretz said from his hospital bed. “At first we thought the ceiling had collapsed, but then I turned around and saw he was aiming his weapon at me.”
There were children next to him, Peretz said, so he took his three nieces and another girl and rushed them to a building in the back of the shul campus. As he scooped up one of the girls, the gunman fired toward Peretz, he said, hitting him in the leg.
His niece Noya was injured in the face and a leg by shrapnel and also received treatment at the local hospital, Palomar Medical Center, before being released the same day.
“I was scared, really, really scared,” Noya said, recalling how the group of children she had been with had cried out of fear after the gunman started shooting. “I didn’t see my dad. I thought he was dead.
“I saw the rabbi shout and scream and run towards the man who shot, then a bullet hit him and I saw his fingers were cut off, it was so scary,” she recalled.
“Then there was another bullet and he jumped and the bullet passed beneath him and went past me and hit my leg a little,” Noya said.
A FAMILY FLEEING VIOLENCE
Noya’s father, Israel Dahan, told CNN, “We’re shocked, it’s a little bit scary. We’re all over the place.” In an interview with Israel Radio, he said, “We are going from fire to fire.”
Dahan explained that a few years after he and his family moved from Sderot to a different city in California, their home was spray-painted with swastikas, so the family moved to the safe, quiet suburban Poway. Now, the family has to deal with the trauma of the shooting in their shul. Dahan said that when the family returned to their home after the shooting, his children asked him, “Why are we staying here?”
The next day, Noya was flustered by the media which flocked to their home. “There’s too many cameras in here,” she complained.
“It’s really crazy,” the young girl said. “At the synagogue you should feel safe and it should be fun, but now I’m really frightened and I don’t know if I’ll go back to that synagogue.”
WHO WAS THE SHOOTER?
The shooting at the Chabad of Poway was a chilling reminder of the shooting at the Tree of Life Conservative temple in Pittsburgh exactly six months ago, in which 11 Jews were killed.
San Diego County Sheriff William Gore said that John Earnest, who lived at his parents’ home and was a dean’s list student at a local college, had no prior criminal record, but that he openly espoused white-supremacist and anti-Semitic dogma.
Law enforcement authorities were reviewing Earnest’s social media posts. A person identifying himself as John Earnest posted an anti-Jewish manifesto online about an hour before the attack. The author of the post described himself as a nursing school student and praised those who carried out deadly attacks on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, last month that killed 50, and the October 27 mass shooting in Pittsburgh.
The author also said that he was responsible for an arson attack on a mosque in Escondido, California, on March 24, and that he had written graffiti related to the New Zealand attacks at the scene.
The manifesto is similar to one posted on the same message board by Brenton Tarrant, the white supremacist who was behind the March 15 mosque attacks in New Zealand. The new manifesto lashed out in several directions. It called President Donald Trump “anti-white,” criticized conservatives and liberals alike, and denigrated Hispanics, Muslims and blacks with the usual slurs.
The FBI said it received anonymous tips on a threatening social media post about five minutes before the attack on the Chabad shul, but the tip did not offer specific information about its author or location of the threat. FBI employees immediately tried to determine who wrote the post, but the shooting occurred before they could establish his identity.
Police searched Earnest’s house and said they were checking the possibility that he was responsible for the attack on the mosque in Escondido. Earnest was being held in jail without bail, and the shul shooting was being treated as a hate crime, which exposes him to additional criminal charges and penalties when he is brought to trial for the homicide of Lori Kaye.
Police said that they did find an assault rifle in Earnest’s car when he was arrested. A Go-Pro video camera was also found in the car, indicating that Earnest may have planned on filming the attack.
In a post on an internet message board, a user who appears to be Earnest shared the manifesto and announced his plan to live-stream his actions on Facebook and shared a link, but Facebook blocked the fake profile before it gained widespread attention.
Officials at California State University at San Marcos confirmed that Earnest was a student there and that the school was “dismayed and disheartened” that he was suspected in “this despicable act.”
A GOOD WOMAN
Speaking at the news conference in the shul the day after the attack, Rabbi Goldstein told reporters said that Mrs. Kaye, “didn’t deserve to die. . . In my own interpretation, Lori took the bullet for all of us. She died to protect all of us. This is Lori. This is her legacy, and her legacy will continue. It could have been so much worse.”
Rabbi Goldstein described Mrs. Kaye, one of the synagogue’s founding members, as a deeply caring member of the community. When one congregant developed cancer, Mrs. Kaye drove her to every appointment and helped take care of her children, Goldstein said. “She was a person of unconditional love,” he added.
Just a few weeks earlier, Mrs. Kaye and her husband had flown to New York to participate in the wedding of Rabbi Goldstein’s youngest daughter. Decades ago, Rabbi Goldstein recalled, Mrs. Kaye had also been there to help him get a construction loan he needed for the Chabad of Poway, which was established in 1986.
Rabbi Goldstein said that in honor of Lori’s memory, and to fight anti-Semitism, everyone was invited to attend a special program in the shul. “We need to fill up those rooms, we need to show them that terrorism and evil will never prevail,” he said. “Let’s fill up the synagogue, let’s stand tall, let’s dance together.”
A Facebook entry by Lori’s friend, Audrey Jacobs, described her as “a jewel of our community a true Eshet Chayil, a Woman of Valor. . . You were always running to do a mitzvah (good deed) and generously gave tzedaka (charity) to everyone,” Jacobs wrote.
Another close friend, Dr. Ronit Leev, told CNN that Lori was always trying to cheer other people up, and that she was very generous in sending charity money with her friends when they would go away on trips in order to do good in the faraway communities they would visit. Leev also said that Lori loved gardening and made delicious challah for her family and friends.
RELIVING THE INCIDENT
At the news conference Sunday afternoon, Rabbi Goldstein stood before reporters with both of his hands wrapped in blue casts. The index finger on his right hand was missing, a permanent reminder he’ll have of the shooting, he said.
Almog Peretz, who has been hailed as a hero for his quick thinking during the attack, also participated in the news conference with Rabbi Goldstein in the synagogue. He was limping slightly from shrapnel wounds to his leg when he pointed out to reporters where he had taken the children to escape the gunman.
“As I was running out the door [to the playground] he was behind me shooting at me,” Peretz said in Hebrew, and admitted that he had woken up in a cold sweat the night before when he relived the moment in a nightmare.
Peretz had found several more children in addition to his relatives. “All the children were in the yard and heard a loud noise inside,” he said. “When children become afraid, where do they run if not to their parents? But the parents were inside. Imagine 20 kids running back into the synagogue, and that man standing there with his weapon.”
Peretz said the first thing he did was to get the group of children running, “I told them, ‘go this way, go this way.’” He led them to an adjacent house, where they were allowed to go inside. When he looked around, Peretz suddenly realized that his other niece, Noya’s five-year-old sister Lian, was missing.
Peretz then ran back toward the shul to search for the missing child.
“If we had lost a child in there, we would never have gotten through it,” he said. “These are children I see every day, smiling, laughing. If one of them had died, I would be done for life, especially if it were my niece. I preferred to die myself than abandon them. I’d be a coward otherwise.”
Lian, meanwhile, was hiding in the shul’s bathroom where she had been when she heard the shooting start, and she stayed there until the shooting stopped.
“Then someone came and I asked if he was a good or a bad man. He told me, ‘It’s okay, I’m a Jew,’ so I asked him to take me to my dad,” she said in an interview with Yediot Acharonot.
Another visitor from Israel who was in the Chabad shul that morning was Shimon Abitbul, who said he immediately placed his two-year-old grandson on the floor and waited for a break in the shooting to grab the boy and sprint away. He later told reporters that he was still having difficulty coming to grips with the attack.
Nancy Levanoni and her husband, Menachem Levanoni, a former president of the synagogue, arrived just as the shooting began.
“We heard gunshots,” she said. “I thought maybe someone was stepping on those little plastic bubbles.” Then Mrs. Levanoni saw Rabbi Goldstein’s bleeding hands and Lori Kaye, who had been one of her closest friends for 17 years, lying wounded on the floor.
She would later join in the praise for Kaye, speaking as if she was still alive. “She can’t do enough for people around her. If you are sick, she brings you food. She’s a wonderful, wonderful person.”
TRUMP EARNS THE RABBI’S GRATITUDE
During the news conference at the shul, Rabbi Goldstein made a point of thanking the mayor of Poway and the Sheriff’s Office, and praising President Donald Trump, who initiated a 15-minute phone call with the rabbi which Trump later recalled as a meaningful experience for him as well.
“He was just so comforting,” Goldstein said at the press conference. “I’m really grateful to our president for taking the time and making that effort to share with us his comfort and consolation.”
Goldstein received the phone call at home and was amazed to hear a White House secretary on the line. “He was amazing. I have never spoken with a president of the United States before.” Goldstein said. When he asked Trump “What are you doing about the anti-Semitism?”, the president responded: “You know, I have a son-in-law that is Jewish, my daughter is Jewish, my grandkids are Jewish. I love Israel and I support Israel. I just [recognized Israel’s annexation of] the Golan Heights and I moved the embassy. My love is for the Jewish people.”
“I never such words from any president before,” Goldstein exclaimed. “He was so kind and so generous with his words.”
The next day, President Trump praised Goldstein for his heroic actions after being shot at point blank range.
“I spoke at length yesterday to Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, Chabad of Poway, where I extended my warmest condolences to him and all affected by the shooting in California. What a great guy. He had a least one finger blown off, and all he wanted to do is help others. Very special!” Trump tweeted.
The White House formally acknowledged the phone call by issuing a statement which said, “The President expressed his love for the Jewish people and the entire community of Poway.”
Before leaving the White House several hours after the shooting to attend a political rally in Wisconsin, Trump said, “Our entire nation mourns the loss of life, prays for the wounded and stands in solidarity with the Jewish community. We forcefully condemn the evil of anti-Semitism and hate, which must be defeated.” At the rally he said, “My deep condolences to all of those affected” by the shooting, which he said “looks like a hate crime.”
THE LARGER COMMUNITY RESPONDS
The day after the attack on the shul, dozens of people, many wearing black, gathered on a nearby street corner in Poway to show their support for the victims and the congregation, and to call for an end to hate and violence.
Deb Lira, 71, of San Diego, said she was angry and sickened by the attack.
“I’m here because I’m Jewish and this is my message,” she said, pointing to a sign that read “never again” and “never forget.”
“I will not be silent,” she said.
Kadie Nagy, who is not Jewish, and her three-year-old son, Sky, placed a small bouquet of flowers in honor of the shooting victims near a light post piled high with flowers and cards. Sobbing, she said she didn’t know the victims but she felt a connection to those who worshipped at the Chabad shul.
“Each of these different violent acts, they just feel like they’re getting closer and closer to us,” she said. “We love this city. We love our Jewish friends.”
According to Census Bureau data, Poway’s population is 81% white, 16% Hispanic, 13% Asian and 2% black.
“We forcefully condemn the evil of anti-Semitism and hate,” Poway Mayor Steve Vaus said during an interview with MSNBC. “I can tell you that it was a hate crime, and that will not stand.”
Political and religious leaders around the nation were quick to condemn the attack and voice their support for the Jewish community of Poway.
California Senator Kamala Harris said on Twitter: “Yet again a place of worship is the target of senseless gun violence and hate. Anti-Semitism is real in this country and we must not be silent – enough is enough.”
California Congressman Scott Peters also posted on Twitter, condemning the act of violence: “Tragic news that a gunman has attacked Chabad of Poway synagogue, on this, the last day of Passover, a day that is supposed to be a celebration of faith and freedom. I am thinking of, and praying for, those hurt and affected.”
Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is running for the Democrat presidential nomination, said the latest synagogue shooting underscores the need for tougher gun laws.
“This is one more demonstration that we have a new normal, and that we have become so divided that … we are allowing the divisions to lead to hate and allowing the hate to lead to violence,” Hickenlooper said. “It is a combination of President Trump’s leadership at the top but tied into some of the real challenges we have around issues of mental health. People seem so vulnerable to the hatred.”
HOW TO FIGHT THE RISE IN ANTI-SEMITISM?
The deadly nature and rising frequency of these attacks on various types of houses of worship have raised urgent questions about how to fight religious bigotry in a time of political polarization, largely unregulated social media and diminished trust in community organizations and institutions.
Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive and national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said that the Jewish community is again devasted. “This was a pointed attack on Chabad, on the visible Jewish community here, and this is a collective attack on all Jewish communities—this is anti-Semitism unleashed. In a pattern where prejudice is minimized, in an environment where intolerance is trivialized and when prejudice becomes politicized, we shouldn’t be surprised.”
Greenblatt added that in recent decades, “anti-Semitic attitudes have been historically low, but it’s difficult now to feel anything other than alarm. Society is just more complicated—technology has empowered individuals and has disempowered states.”
Greenblatt cited FBI statistics showing anti-Semitic crimes up 37% in 2017, a sharper rise than crimes against any other minority group. He noted that “although this typically starts with the Jews, it never ends with the Jews. It’s like a disease that engulfs the broader population.”
HOLDING SOCIAL MEDIA RESPONSIBLE
“The main culprits are social media and the total collapse of any sense of bipartisanship about how to fight hate in America,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, director of global social action at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human rights organization. “Evildoers around the world learned from the 9/11 terrorists that you don’t need the backing of a state or a mass movement. And then individuals who are probably psychiatric cases are inspired to do these things because social media spreads a culture of hate in the most public ways, and encrypted communications allows them to go private to discuss the how-tos,” Cooper said.
Cooper joined other religious leaders in calling on President Trump to make a clear statement against the white-supremacist rhetoric on social media that has surrounded recent attacks.
“The president needs to put out the tweet that this kind of behavior and this kind of language is outside the acceptable,” Cooper said. “What we’re seeing are the old hatreds, dusted off and supercharged through social media,” he explained. “It’ll cost them a few pennies, but we need the big boys—Twitter, Facebook, Google, Instagram, YouTube—to make sure this weapon they’ve created isn’t inspiring this phenomenon to multiply.”
Longtime Democrat pollster and commentator Doug Schoen wrote that he “was particularly heartened by President Trump’s remarks in Wisconsin where he stood up for Jews and the Jewish community unabashedly— “forcefully condemn[ing] the evil of anti-Semitism and hate,” and decreeing that “it must be defeated.”
Schoen had criticized Trump’s previous statements in reaction to violent acts of racial and religious hatred, such as the massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, and in the aftermath of the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.
As such, Schoen noted, Trump’s remarks about the Poway attack, “represented a major improvement in rhetoric for the president.”
Schoen also wrote, “I have also called out my own party on many occasions over the past year for failing to explicitly reprimand the blatantly anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric of Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Rashida Tlaib. . .
“Candidly, I am deeply depressed over the rise in anti-Semitism that we are seeing in the United States and around the world. This failure has been a step backward for Democrats, and a missed opportunity to stand for what is right and to be at the forefront of this crucial issue. . .
“This is not just a Jewish issue. Regardless of where one prays—be it a mosque, church, or Hindu temple—every American has the right to worship in peace and free of fear from violence,” Schoen concluded.
FEAR GROWS IN SMALL JEWISH COMMUNITIES
The attack on Chabad in Poway generated a new wave of fear in similar communities where Jews are a tiny minority of the population.
Anna Gerratana came to the US from Venezuela in 2015, where the small number of Jews felt they “had to be hiding all the time,” she said. Gerratana, her husband and their young daughter settled in Cary, North Carolina, where they attend a Chabad synagogue.
They thought they would be safe, but in October, anti-Semitic flyers covered with swastikas began circulating in their neighborhood.
“It’s like there’s no place in the world where you can be really comfortable with the idea of being a Jew,” said Gerratana.
Dobie Thaler runs a Chabad house on the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee campus with her husband, a rabbi. “We have an open-door policy; there’s always strangers showing up,” she said. But in the wake of Poway, she asked, “are we supposed to start questioning everyone that walks in?”
“Students or friends ask me, because they’re afraid, ‘Should I wear my star of David necklace?’” Thaler said. She told them: “If you hide it, then the hate is winning.”
The Washington Post and the AP contributed to this report.