The rabbi who founded the Chabad of Poway synagogue that was allegedly targeted Saturday by a 19-year-old gunman described a horrifying but also spiritually uplifting scene during and after the attack, one with tales of heroism against the shooter and unspeakable grief as one of the congregants lay dying on the lobby floor.
Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, in a news conference Sunday, delivered a step-by-step recounting of the attack that police say came from a man armed with an assault-style weapon who wrote a manifesto of hate against Jewish people. One of Goldstein’s fingers was shot off in the assault, and another was badly injured.
After the shooter had fled, Goldstein said, he walked into the synagogue’s lobby to find congregant Lori Gilbert Kaye, 60, “laying on the floor unconscious, and her dear husband, Dr. Howard Kaye, who's like a brother to me, is trying to resuscitate her."
“And he faints and he's laying there on the floor next to his wife. And then their daughter Hannah comes out screaming, ‘Daddy and Mommy, what's going on?!’ It's the most heart-wrenching sight I could have seen. I was frozen in time,” Goldstein said through tears outside the synagogue.
“I grabbed a prayer shawl; wrapped my arm, my fingers with it, that was just hanging, dangling; I’m bleeding all over the place. My congregation was gathered outside here, and I said I gotta do something. I got up on a chair, right there, and I looked at the congregation,” he said.
“‘We are a Jewish nation that will stand tall! We will not let anyone or anything take us down! Terrorism like this will not take us down!’” he said he told his congregants.
“We just came from Passover at the Seder table; we sang a song ... that God has protected us, that in every generation they rise up against us. But God will protect us,” he said.
“Yesterday, in this horrific terrible event that has occurred here, 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 ... just a good human being. She doesn't deserve to die right in front of my eyes,” he said.
“This is her legacy. It could have been so much worse. If the sequence of events didn't happen the way they happened, it could have been a much worse massacre,” he said.
The city of San Diego, he said, held a seminar that people in the congregation attended “where they were talking about the active shooters, and how to deal with it.”
The rabbi said the training helped “tremendously. They evacuated so well; we had so many exit doors that it was so effective. People ducked down and they crawled out to safe areas.”
Goldstein began his remarks by recounting the moments before the shooting.
“Here we are in the lobby, on one of the holiest days of the year, the last day of Passover, smiling at each other, and I walk into the banquet hall to wash my hands. I walk two, three footsteps when I hear a loud bang,” he said. “I thought Lori may have fell or the table tipped over in the lobby.
“I turn around and I see a sight that I — undescribable. Here is a young man standing with a rifle, pointing right at me. And I look at him. He had sunglasses on. I couldn't see his eyes, I couldn't see his soul. I froze,” he said.
“My first concern was, what's with Lori? Where did that noise come from? What's happened to Lori? And as soon as I did that, I took a look, and more shots came running right at me. And I lifted up my hands. I lost my index finger on this hand after four hours of surgery yesterday to try to save the index finger on the left hand,” he said.
“I turn around and I saw the children that were playing in the banquet hall. I ran to gather them together. My granddaughter, 4 1/2 years old, sees her grandpa with a bleeding hand and sees me screaming and shouting, ‘Get out, get out!’” he said. “She didn't deserve to see her grandfather like this.”
A Border Patrol agent who, the rabbi said, “recently discovered his Jewish roots” was there. The rabbi told him when he first started coming to the synagogue, “You work for the Border Patrol. Please arm yourself when you are here; we never know when we will need it.”
When the shooter’s gun jammed, the rabbi said, another member of the synagogue, “Oscar Stewart, a former soldier, jumped into action. He tried to tackle down the gunman. The gunman just exited, ran away, got into his car.”
Shortly after, the San Diego sheriff confirmed that Stewart, 51, “rushed the shooting suspect” in an “act of courage.”
Stewart chased “after the suspect as he fled the synagogue to a vehicle parked nearby.” The Border Patrol agent yelled at Stewart to get out of the way and opened fire on the car.
“The message needs to be brought out to the public: How does a 19-year-old, a teenager, have the audacity, the sickness, the hatred, to publicize such anti-Semitism in his manifesto? How does he come here to a house of worship and do what he did?” the rabbi said.
“Perhaps we need to go back a little earlier and think about what are we teaching our children. What are we educating our children?” he said.
The rabbi also said that he got a phone call from President Donald Trump and they spoke for 10 to 15 minutes. “I was amazed to answer the phone and say the secretary of the White House was calling,” he said.” It's the first time I've ever spoken to a president of the United States of America. He shared with me condolences on behalf of the United States of America.
“And he spoke about his love of peace and Judaism and Israel,” he said. "He was so comforting. I'm grateful to our president for taking the time [to] share with us his comfort and consolation.”
One of Goldstein’s fingers was shot off in the assault, and another was badly injured. His injury was misstated in an earlier version of this story.