Exactly six months to the day after the deadliest attack on Jews in U.S. history, a teenage gunman with hate in his heart took aim at Jews again on the Sabbath. This time the attack took place at Congregation Chabad of Poway on the other side of the country, about 20 miles north of San Diego, in a place just a bit smaller than the city of El’ad, in Israel.
One older woman succumbed to her wounds shortly after reaching the hospital. She was identified as Lori Gilbert Kaye, “a beloved member of Chabad of Poway congregation for many years” and, as described by synagogue founder, Chabad-Lubavitch emissary Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, “a true aishel chayil, a woman of valor.”
Goldstein later told reporters tearfully at the hospital that it was Lori Kaye who had put herself in harm’s way, and took the bullets meant for him. Her husband, a medical doctor, rushed to the synagogue to help after the attack, and began to resuscitate his wife, at first not realizing who his patient was. When he glanced at her features, and her identity registered, the shocked physician fainted, witnesses said.
An eight-year-old Israeli girl and her 34-year-old uncle were also wounded in the attack, along with the rabbi. All three survived and were reported in stable condition at Palomar Medical Center Poway after 19-year-old John Earnest opened fire Saturday morning at 11:23 am Pacific time.
The girl has been identified as Noya Dahan, whose family had moved to San Diego from Sderot, Israel, to get away from terrorism. The second man has been identified as Almog Peretz, Noya’s uncle, visiting from Sderot for Passover.
It was Almog Peretz who gathered the children and led them out of the main chapel and out of harm’s way, although he was shot in the leg by the attacker while doing so.
Witnesses said Rabbi Goldstein had stepped away to wash his hands just prior to the prayers for Yizkor — the service for the departed — when the shooting started. The rabbi reportedly reached out to try to stop the gunman, but was shot in the hands, losing at least one of two index fingers. However, that did not deter the rabbi from finishing his sermon: he refused to leave his congregation and go to the hospital until he finished speaking to worshipers, urging them to “stay strong.”
To watch a Chabad.org video of Rabbi Goldstein telling his story from the hospital, click here.
The attack might indeed have been worse, had it not been for military and police personnel in the synagogue, and the miracle of the attacker’s gun suddenly jamming.
A U.S. military veteran in the synagogue charged the attacker when his gun jammed and then chased him from the shul, according to witness accounts. An off-duty Border Patrol officer who was also in the synagogue opened fire at the attacker as he fled. He did not manage to hit the suspect, but he did hit his vehicle four times, witnesses said.
“This shooter was engaged by people in the congregation, and those brave people certainly prevented this from being a much worse tragedy,” Poway Mayor Steve Vaus said. He added that the previous month, worshipers had learned safety protocols and how to respond during a shooting from police and local officials who came to visit the synagogue.
“I think this could’ve been far, far worse but they were being proactive, they were ready,” Vaus told reporters. “I think that saved a lot more bloodshed and loss of life.”
San Diego County Sheriff William Gore said the weapon used by Earnest appeared to be an AR-15 rifle.
The attack is being classified as a hate crime by local officials, due to anti-Semitic statements made by the shooter as he opened fire, such as “Jews were ruining the world.”
Shortly after the attack, Earnest reportedly called the California Highway Patrol to report the shooting and his location on Interstate 15, according to San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit.
A California Highway Patrol officer on his way to the scene heard the call come over the police scanner, saw the suspect en route, and pulled him over. According to Nisleit, Earnest exited his vehicle with his hands up and was taken into custody “without incident.” The officer said he saw the rifle on the front passenger seat of the vehicle.
Law enforcement officials are examining an open letter posted online to an anonymous message board, 8chan, before the shooting, that was appeared to have been signed by the suspect, Gore said, to “determine its validity and authenticity.”
The letter references killing Jewish people and attacks on the Tree of Life Synagogue on Pittsburgh, as well as the mosque shootings in New Zealand. In addition, the author of the letter claims responsibility for an arson incident at the Islamic Center of Escondido on March 24, a week and a half after the New Zealand attacks.
President Donald Trump called the mayor to offer his condolences following the shooting, as did Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto, who noted it has been only six months since the Tree of Life Synagogue was similarly attacked in his city. The president also subsequently called Rabbi Goldstein after his surgery in the hospital, to wish him a speedy recovery.
“Hard to believe, hard to believe,” Trump told reporters at the White House just before flying to a rally. “We’re doing some very heavy research. We’ll see what happens, what comes up. At this moment it looks like a hate crime. But my deepest sympathies to all of those affected. And we’ll get to the bottom of it.”