San Diego

‘Terror Will Not Win': Rabbi Recalls Poway Synagogue Shooting

On Saturday, one woman was killed and three people were injured in a shooting at Chabad of Poway

The rabbi injured in the deadly shooting inside a Poway, California, synagogue, on the last day of Passover said the gunman's weapon "miraculously" jammed, preventing more people from dying. 

“We are here together standing on sacred property -- a synagogue -- a house of prayer where 24 hours ago, we saw terrorism in the worst of way,” Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein told a crowd outside Chabad of Poway Sunday afternoon, recalling the devastating events of the attack one day earlier that killed a 60-year-old woman and wounded three others, including Goldstein. 

Goldstein said two people helped chase the attacker from the synagogue, and that, despite being shot, he spoke to his congregation as they sheltered in place in the immediate aftermath.

“We are a Jewish nation that will stand tall," he recalled telling his faithful. "We will not let anyone or anything take us down.”

The 57-year-old rabbi earlier Sunday described on NBC's TODAY show the attack. He said he heard a “large bang” as he walked into the banquet hall before services at the synagogue.

“I turned around and I’m face to face with this murderer -- terrorist -- who was holding a rifle and looking straight at me, and then as soon as he saw me, he started to shoot toward me, and that’s when I put my hands up and then my fingers got blown away,” Goldstein told TODAY.

The rabbi suffered gunshot wounds to his index fingers, which trauma surgeon Michael Katz said was “the largest injury” of the three surviving victims. Goldstein lost his right index finger.

“I turned around and I 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,” Goldstein told TODAY.

As he was rushing children out, he wrapped his fingers in a prayer shawl, he said.

“My granddaughter -- 4 and a half years old -- sees her grandpa with a bleeding hand and she sees me screaming and shouting, ‘Get out! Get out!’ She didn’t deserve to see her grandfather like this,” Goldstein said.

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The suspected shooter was later identified as 19-year-old John T. Earnest from San Diego. An anti-Semitic open letter was posted by a user identifying himself as John Earnest on the far-right message board 8chan hours before the attack, NBC News reported.

“A young man standing with a rifle, staring right at me, he had sunglasses on -- I couldn’t see his eyes, I couldn’t see his soul,” Goldstein said of the gunman.

”How does a 19-year-old, a teenager, have the audacity, the sickness, the hatred?” he said. “How does he come to our house of worship and do what he did?”

“I cannot erase that face in my mind. I cannot erase that moment. It’s going to be embedded there forever. You know, with the loss of my index finger, it’s going to be a scar for the rest of my life ... to remind us of literally how vulnerable we are, but also how brave we need to be. Everyone needs to be a hero. Everyone needs to step up and do something in the face of terror,” Goldstein said in the interview.

Goldstein said the attack could have been “much worse” but “miraculously the gun jammed.”

Authorities have said Earnest used an assault-type rifle in the attack.

After the gun jammed, the rabbi said Oscar Stewart, an Army veteran inside the synagogue at the time, “jumped into action” and tried to tackle the gunman, but the suspect fled.

The rabbi said it was fortunate that there was an off-duty U.S. Border Patrol agent, later identified as Jonathan Morales, at Saturday’s services who went in pursuit of the shooting suspect.

The off-duty agent opened fire on the suspect outside, missing the man but striking his vehicle, deputies said. 

Goldstein said Morales is from El Centro and recently discovered his Jewish roots.

“Terror will not win. As Americans, we can’t cower in the senseless hate that is in anti-Semitism. You know, beneath the surface of every terrible experience, there lies an opportunity to grow and increase in goodness,” Goldstein told TODAY. “Our government needs to continue to step up and help prioritize in securing our houses of worship.”

Outside of the sanctuary, which is the part of the synagogue where prayer services are performed, the congregation was sheltering in place and waiting for authorities to arrive. Here, the rabbi continued to deliver his sermon, he told TODAY's Willie Geist.

“I got up there, and I just spoke from my heart and giving everyone the courage to know -- you know, it was just 70 years ago during the Holocaust, we were gunned down like this. And I just want to let our fellow Americans know, we’re not going to let this happen here -- not here in San Diego, not here in Poway, not here in the United States of America,” Goldstein said.

President Donald Trump personally called Goldstein, the rabbi said at the news conference Sunday. They spoke for 10 to 15 minutes.

“He shared with me condolences on behalf of the United States of America,” Goldstein said. “He was just so comforting that I’m really grateful for our president for really taking the time.”

Trump tweeted about Goldstein on Monday, calling him "a great guy" who, despite his injuries, only wanted to help others.

Goldstein co-established Chabad of Poway in 1986 when he was in his early 20s.

Lori Gilbert-Kaye, a member of the congregation, was killed in the shooting. Goldstein said she was a “steadfast supporter” and helped secure a construction loan to build the synagogue.

“She is such a dear friend. I’ve known her for 33 years. And I’m just so heartbroken and saddened by this senseless killing,” Goldstein said.

Goldstein said Gilbert-Kaye came to the synagogue Saturday because her mother recently died.

“After this terrorist left, I turn around to assess the situation, and I turn to see Lori laying on the ground unconscious, and her dear husband, Dr. Howard Kaye -- who is like a brother to me -- is trying to resuscitate her,” Goldstein said.

“In my own interpretation, Lori took the bullet for all of us. She died to protect all of us. She didn’t deserve to die. She’s such a kind, sweet-hearted -- just a good human being. She didn’t deserve to die right in front of my eyes. I was the last one to see her and to be with her, but I do know that this is Lori, this is her legacy. And her legacy will continue,” Goldstein said.

The other two victims in the attack were 34-year-old Almog Peretz and 8-year-old Noya Dahan. The girl was released from the hospital Saturday night and Peretz was released Sunday. Both are recovering.

Chabad of Poway is located at 16934 Chabad Way, next door to two other places of worship, St. John of Damascus Orthodox and Incarnation Lutheran Church.

“I ask that we all do something -- something -- to add more light to combat this evil darkness that’s out there. And that can happen through acts of compassion, love, and kindness,” Goldstein said.

The suspect was taken into custody on a roadway after fleeing and calling 911 to report the shooting, San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit said. Earnest may be charged with a hate crime in addition to homicide charges when he's arraigned later this week. Police said he was also being investigated in connection with an arson attack on a mosque in nearby Escondido, California, on March 24.

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