“We need to go out there and spread light,” Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein said on Sunday from his hospital room in San Diego, California, in response to the fatal terrorist attack on his synagogue the day before.
Rabbi recalls coming face-to-face with synagogue shooter, April 29, 2019 (Reuters)
Goldstein was shot at close range in a hate crime shooting attack during the eighth day of Passover services.
“We need to create as much light as possible in this world, by participating in prayer services, supporting our local Jewish communities and mostly doing random acts of kindness,” he said on a phone call with The Jerusalem Post.
“A little bit of light pushes out a lot of darkness,” he said.
Goldstein was one of three people wounded in the shooting attack on Saturday by John Earnest, 19, who allegedly burst into the Congregation Chabad synagogue in Poway, north of San Diego. Earnest killed Lori Gilbert-Kaye, 60
, and wounded the rabbi and two others, including an eight-year-old girl.
The rabbi described in an audio interview aired on national television how after exiting the prayer service to wash his hands, he entered the synagogue banquet hall and heard a loud bang.
“I did not know what it was,” Goldstein said. “I thought Mrs. Lori fell or a table fell. I turned around and I was face-to-face with the murderer-terrorist, who was holding a weapon and looking straight at me.”
Goldstein described how the shooter opened fire, and he put his hands up to block the bullets, which sliced off one of his fingers. He then watched as Earnest gunned down Gilbert-Kaye at close range.
“I turned around and saw a group of children in the banquet hall, including my granddaughter, and I just ran, not even knowing that my fingers were blown off, and hurled all the kids together and got them outside... to safety,” the rabbi continued.
An off-duty patrol officer then came in pursuit of the terrorist.
Once the shooter was apprehended, the congregation went outside. There, the rabbi “got up there and spoke from my heart,” delivering the remainder of the sermon which he had begun inside.
“I gave everyone the courage to know that it was just 70 years ago during the Holocaust that we were gunned down like this,” he said. “We are not going to let this happen again.”
But he told the Post through deep swallows, “This is Nazi Germany again – people coming into our houses of worship and shooting us.”
“The goal is for people to realize that in this day and age we are not going to fall, to stop going to synagogues and temples,” he continued. “We are not going to stay away from public areas. We as a Jewish people have been through this too many times in our Jewish history. In 2019, we are not going to tolerate this anymore, but intensify our attendance.”
The rabbi said that he is calling on Jews around the world to go to shul this Saturday and show that terrorism cannot win.
He also used the opportunity to call on the United States government to help. He said that if an armed guard had been standing by the door, “there is a very good chance this terrorist would have been neutralized.” He described his synagogue as a small congregation on a thin budget.
“We don’t have a budget for this, and the lack of support in funding got us a dead best friend on the floor and I lost my fingers,” he said. “If the resources would be made available to all houses of worship to have protection, we could avoid this from happening. How many more dead bodies do we need before we wake up and say the government needs to help these organizations have security guards at all houses of prayer?”
The rabbi said he is “heartbroken by this senseless killing” and that the US constitution guarantees freedom of religion.
His son, Rabbi Mendel Goldstein, told the Post that the Chabad center had undergone some security training. He explained that immediately after the October 27 Pittsburgh shooting attack, the synagogue underwent training with the local sheriff and that the mayor had come of the facility to give a briefing about what is needed in event of an active shooter. No one thought it would happen to them, he admitted.
“I am not sure we were practicing what we were taught,” Mendel Goldstein said. “But for sure it helped.”
He said that before the shooter entered the synagogue, the atmosphere was “joyous.” Members were celebrating the last day of Passover and the Torah scroll had just been taken out of the ark. During the fifth aliyah to the Torah, they heard a bang. At the first bang, they were not sure what was happening. But by the second, everyone knew.
Some 50 people were attending the holiday services, some dozen of them children.
“We all just ran for the door,” Goldstein recalled. “I ran out of the shul to the patio and then jumped over the gate into the trees and to the playground to find my kids. That was my first thought.”
He said the synagogue has multiple entrances, and the shooter had entered through the main door.
“People ran out alternate exits,” he said. “Out of every door, they ran.”
Poway’s Jewish community is small but strong, the older Goldstein explained. He was sent to the community in 1984 as an emissary. At the time, “in the neighborhood, there was nothing there.” He said he spent more than three decades since “dedicated and devoted to bringing Judaism to the people.”
Today, there is a Chabad preschool, a ritual bath, kosher kitchen, friendship circle with children with special needs and the synagogue. Mendel Goldstein grew up in the community and returned as the associate rabbi almost five years ago.
The younger rabbi said that after three hours of questioning by police, when his father and the other victims had gone to the hospital, synagogue members went to his nearby home to finish their morning prayers, including Yizkor, the Jewish memorial service.
“We made a very special Yizkor,” the younger Goldstein said. “The men bentched [blessed] Hagomel [the prayer for being saved from danger] and during Yizkor, we prayed for Lori Gilbert-Kaye and we said Am Yisrael Chai – we will be strong and continue on.”
“Everyone was there together,” continued Mendel Goldstein. “We were all mourning. We all had tears in our eyes. But we were looking forward... It is going to be tough. We will need a lot of help. But we will be strong.”
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