San Bernardino

Nicholas Thalasinos was pictured wearing a tallit – that’s why he was mistaken by some for a Jew.

A POLICE SWAT team conducts a manhunt after a mass shooting in San Bernadino, California, on December 2, 2015 (photo credit: REUTERS)
A POLICE SWAT team conducts a manhunt after a mass shooting in San Bernadino, California, on December 2, 2015
(photo credit: REUTERS)
I dedicated my speech to Nicholas Thalasinos.
I’m 12,138 kilometers from home. I find myself in the same hall in San Bernardino, California, where the memorial ceremony was held for him four years ago. He was one of the 14 men and women murdered in the San Bernardino terrorist attack on December 2, 2015.
San Bernardino is rich in American history – native American Indians, missionaries, gold rushes, famous cowboys and the arrival of the Santa Fe Railroad. The city sits on a fertile plain nestled south of steep-sided, sharp peaked forested mountains. It’s a popular tourist site for lovers of mountain lakes and deep forests. The site of the original McDonald’s is here. How much more American can you get?
Jewish settlers came here, too, in the 1850s, but our hosts are Christians, strong supporters of Israel and international educators opening schools and creating innovative curricula in 150 countries around the world. They provide courses not only in religion but in agricultural development and microenterprises in places throughout the developing and developed world, often where practicing Christianity is dangerous.
I’m grateful for their keen interest in everything related to Israel, their knowledge of Israeli current events and their concern over the latest conflict. Nearly everyone I speak to has been to Israel and is already planning the next trip. I’ve met some of them in Israel and introduced them to terrorism survivors, little guessing that they would experience terrorism in their backyards.
The meeting hall I’m speaking in is part of a complex that includes an impressive Montessori school. The children come from multiethnic backgrounds. There are optional classes in Bible and in Mandarin. As the preschoolers leave the rustic playground – slides and swings and monkey bars among the trees – a teacher ticks off the names of each child before he or she reenters the building. No unescorted adult can enter the children’s realm.
Security is taken seriously.
AFTER THE San Bernardino terrorist attack, Thalasinos was the one pictured wearing a tallit, a Jewish prayer shawl. That’s why he was mistaken by some for a Jew. Actually, he was among the American Christians so strongly identified with Israel and the Jewish people that he wore Jewish symbols – a tallit, a Magen David tie clip.
Thalasinos was a member of one of the several Christian denominations that rent space in this building.
The attack might have taken place in this building. They have learned from the FBI that it was a potential target. The terrorists lived in Redlands, the next town over.
Instead, the terrorists chose a banquet hall where a governmental in-service training day was combined with a Christmas party. Thalasinos was an environmental health inspector in the San Bernardino County Health Department’s environmental services. So was a man named Syed Rizwan Farook. They were among the 80 persons attending the event. Farook’s wife, Tashfeen Malek, reportedly objected to her American-born husband attending a Christmas party.
In a break between morning sessions, Farook left his backpack on the table and went out.
Half an hour later he returned with his wife, both carrying semiautomatic pistols and rifles, both dressed in black tactical gear and ski masks. At first, their co-workers assumed it was a safety drill with a live shooter. Such drills had been held here before, and by chance, San Bernardino SWAT exercises were taking place a few miles away that day.
The bullets were real. The terrorists shot 100 in a few deadly moments.
Fortunately, the pipe bombs in the backpack were too poorly constructed to explode.
Fourteen dead, 22 others seriously wounded.
The terrorist couple fled in a rented SUV, and were neutralized only after a fierce firefight in which police officers were wounded, too.
It was the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11.
Ironically, 9/11 had played a role in the lives of Thalasionos and his wife, Jennifer Thalasinos.
They’d met in an online fan group and started to correspond. In 2001, Nicholas flew to California from his native New Jersey to meet Jennifer, a second grade teacher. He was due to return to the East Coast on September 11, but had to postpone the return because the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers canceled air travel. The extra time gave them an opportunity to get to know each other better. They married, and he moved to California. Nicholas drove Jennifer to school every day.
They shared a strong Christian faith and joined a group called Shilo in which Christians take on certain Jewish customs, like blowing the shofar and not eating pork. Thalasinos, 52, was vociferous about his condemnation of Muslim terrorism and his support for Israel. He wasn’t politically correct.
Farook and Malek also corresponded online before marriage, and shared their toxic ideology. Theirs was a deadly commitment to violent jihad and identification with ISIS. They amassed a stockpile of weapons, ammunition and bomb-building materials where they were raising their infant daughter.
When Farook’s iPhone was retrieved, Apple notoriously refused to unlock it. Reportedly, the Israeli Petah Tikva company Cellebrite Mobile Synchronization assisted the FBI in opening it.
My talk is an insider’s look at Israel, a backgrounder on the conflict in Gaza and an update on the terrorism survivors they’ve met at Hadassah Medical Center. They are also faithful readers of this newspaper. The first news they look at every day is the state of the State of Israel. I am humbled by their allegiance. We can’t take it for granted.
Nicholas Thalasinos, may your memory be for a blessing.
The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is A