Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein was preparing for his sermon during services Saturday morning, a series of ceremonies on the final day of Passover, when he walked into his synagogue’s banquet hall and heard the deafening bang.
Only moments before, Lori Gilbert Kaye, 60, his friend of two decades and a pioneering congregant at Chabad of Poway, had stopped the rabbi to ask what time Yizkor would begin, a seasonal prayer meant to celebrate and remember those who have died. She and her husband were there with their 22-year-old daughter. They wanted to honor Kaye’s mother.
“11:30,” the rabbi replied.
So when he heard the bang, Goldstein thought Kaye may have fallen, or that perhaps a table had toppled. When he turned to look, though, he saw not Kaye, but a man wearing sunglasses and holding an assault rifle.
“I couldn’t see his eyes,” the rabbi recalled later. “I couldn’t see his soul.”
Soon there were more bangs moving in his direction, which Goldstein said he realized were gunshots. The rabbi raised his hands and bullets badly mangled his fingers. Shrapnel injured two others, both Israeli nationals, before the shooter’s gun “miraculously jammed,” the rabbi said. A 19-year-old man, identified by authorities as John Earnest, was chased from the synagogue and fled in a car, witnesses said. He was eventually arrested.
Goldstein, bleeding badly from his hands, herded a group of young children outside, including his 4-year-old granddaughter. He made his way back into the banquet hall, where he finally found Kaye.
She was lying on the ground, unconscious, he said. Beside her was her husband, a physician who had tried to save her but fainted. The couple’s daughter emerged, screaming.
“It was the most heart-wrenching sight I could have seen,” Goldstein said. “I was frozen in time.”
Ultimately, the rabbi and the Israeli nationals survived their wounds. Kaye did not.
“In my own interpretation, Lori took the bullet for all of us. She died to protect all of us,” Goldstein said at a news conference Sunday afternoon. “This is Lori. This is her legacy, and her legacy will continue. It could have been so much worse.”
Just weeks before, Kaye and her husband had flown to New York to celebrate the wedding of Goldstein’s daughter. And she had been there for the rabbi decades ago, too, when he wanted to build his house of worship and needed financial support. She helped him secure a loan.
In her honor, and to combat anti-Semitism, the rabbi called on everyone to attend synagogue next week. “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, lets dance together.”
In a Facebook post later published in the Jewish Journal, Audrey Jacobs wrote that Kaye was “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.
The third shooting victim, Almog Peretz, was visiting from Israel. He was attending the Chabad synagogue with his family, who moved to San Diego eight years ago from the town of Sderot, along Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip, to escape the onslaught of rocket fire there.
Peretz, who still lives in Israel, told the local TV station Channel 12 that dodging rocket fire has become instinctual — and that those instincts helped him flee the bullets Saturday morning.
“A person with a big rifle, like an M16, entered the synagogue and started shooting everywhere,” Peretz told Channel 12 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 campus. As he scooped up one of the girls, the gunman fired toward Peretz, he said, hitting him in the leg.
One of Peretz’s nieces, Noya Dahan, 9, was injured in the face and leg by shrapnel and was treated at a hospital, her father told CNN.
“We’re shocked, it’s a little bit scary,” Israel Dahan said. “We’re all over the place.”
The family moved to the United States nearly a decade ago to escape violence and worship in peace. Then, a few years ago, their home was spray-painted with swastikas, Dahan told CNN. Now, the shooting.
Dahan told CNN that his children asked him Saturday, “Why are we staying here?”
At the news conference Sunday afternoon, the rabbi stood before reporters with his hands wrapped in bright blue bandages. The index finger on his right hand was missing, a permanent reminder he’ll have of the shooting, he said. He thanked the mayor of Poway and the sheriff’s department, and he thanked President Trump, too, for a 15-minute phone call that he said made him feel supported.
Then the rabbi took the opportunity, before a captive audience, to deliver the sermon that gunfire cut short Saturday morning.
“The prophecy of Isaiah,” he said, “is that the world is going to see a better day.”