September 21, 2019

Poway Can No Longer Say ‘Nothing Happens Here’

A crowd watches on screen the funeral for Lori Gilbert-Kaye, the sole fatality of the Saturday synagogue shooting at the Congregation Chabad synagogue in Poway, north of San Diego, California, U.S. April 29, 2019. REUTERS/John Gastaldo

Poway is a sleepy town of nearly 48,000 just northeast of San Diego about 15 miles from the Pacific Ocean. Tall palm trees line its wide streets. Driving through town, strip malls with chain restaurants blur past. Its residential neighborhoods have more palm trees, well-groomed lawns, American flags, and basketball hoops and SUVs in driveways. A sign welcomes you to “The City in the Country” — a nod to Poway’s rural roots.

As I traversed the town after the shooting on April 27 that killed 60-year-old Lori Gilbert-Kaye and wounded 57-year-old Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, 34-year-old Almog Peretz and 8-year-old Noya Dahan, locals told me multiple times, “Nothing happens here.”

Chabad of Poway is in the heart of Poway’s Summerfield neighborhood. You can’t miss the huge, fenced-in concrete structure with stained glass windows on the corner of Espola Road and Chabad Way. Yes, it has its own street name. Jewish families from all over northern San Diego County send their kids to its renowned preschool. It provides programming for children with special needs and hosts popular youth summer camps. The sanctuary can fit close to 700 worshippers. Its Shabbat dinners are open and inclusive.

The locals — Jewish and non-Jewish —  know the Chabad House. It’s an institution; an integral part of the community. At a bagel shop in Scripps Ranch, a 10-minute drive away, a cashier said, “Everyone knows it.”

Less than 24 hours after the tragedy, Summerfield was waking up. Caution tape blocked street access directly in front of the synagogue. The facility was still considered a crime scene. Uniformed officers patrolled. The incessant hum of generators and running engines came from news vans lining the streets.

“It’s just normally so quiet here,” Summerfield resident Tad Nickolich said  while out walking his golden retriever with his wife, Christine, on their way to nearby church services. “It’s a little overwhelming,” Christine said, surveying the scene.

Another couple walked by pushing a stroller and walking a black Lab. The couples nodded to one another. “Everyone knows each other. It’s very family-oriented,” Christine said. “We all just walk our dogs, go to church.”

Nickolich sighed heavily. “You see these kinds of hate crimes, this kind of violence on television but it seems so far away,” he said. “It’s just so crazy that it’s in our backyard.”

Throughout the morning, community members walked, drove and biked over to drop off flowers, candles, handwritten notes and posters at the Espola-Summerfield intersection. A memorial site took shape at the base of a traffic light pole. Heart-shaped notes with messages like “Poway stands with you” and “Poway strong” were taped onto the pole. Some messages were in Hebrew. Some quoted lines from Psalms.

“We will persevere. You can’t stop us from observing. You can’t stop us from doing what we need to do. Judaism will go on. We’re here to make sure it continues.” — Cantor Lori Frank

Dr. Mona Sobel, a retired pediatrician, drove from her home in Rancho Santa Fe to leave flowers. She has lived in the area since 1989 and her family attends services at Beth Am, a Conservative synagogue in San Diego.

“This is shattering, just horrible,” she said. “My grandson goes to preschool at our temple. We’re horrified but we’re not afraid. He’ll be going to school on Monday.”

Steve Vaus, the mayor of Poway, dressed in a sports jacket and a cowboy hat, was being interviewed nearby. “We’ve been through fires and other tragedies. We’re going to get through this,” he said.

A man in black sunglasses, a black-and-yellow Batman shirt and a black helmet affixed with pointy bat ears hopped off his motorcycle and left a bouquet of roses. More people came. Some teens walked over from the nearby Lutheran church and dropped off flowers. A tall, slender man in a long blue tunic and white turban stopped by, his grim face framed by a shapely black beard. His belt held a scimitar. He dropped off a note and left. One elderly man with patchy white facial hair, a blue baseball cap and a German shepherd by his side paced around the site for several minutes.

Some people, like 37-year-old Ryan Stout, came back to the neighborhood they grew up in. He was decked out in New Orleans Saints gear from head to toe. His chinstrap of facial hair glistened with sweat.

“My neighbor’s still right down there. She’s Jewish. I just walked over and gave her a hug,” he said. “She knew [Gilbert-Kaye] well. Her dad’s name is etched in that temple right there,” he said, pointing across the street. “Her kids go there. It’s personal. I’m from Poway. I went to Poway High School. I’ve driven by this I don’t how many thousands of times. To see that place, that was so much a part of my life, on the news for this just breaks your heart. I look at the temple and think who could do something like that to a place like that?”

Lauren Zimmerman, who isn’t Jewish, came from nearby Twin Peaks, where Indivisible San Diego, a coalition of grass-roots progressive groups from all over the county, held a rally in support of Chabad of Poway.

“We don’t have anything like this happen around here,” Zimmerman, a bus driver for Poway High School, said. “We put a kibosh on hate speech pretty quick. We don’t allow bullying in our schools. This is just incredible. Totally shocked.”

“Jewish brothers and sisters are my brothers and sisters. That’s why I’m here, to support the sister who passed away. We have to increase the love between all of us.” — Sulaiman Yonus

She then added that 17-year-old Chelsea King, a Poway High School student, was raped and murdered in the area in 2010. “We rallied then and we’ll rally now,”  she said.

A few minutes later, as I was walking to my car, Zimmerman bounded after me. “Chelsea King was on my bus every day,” she said. “I still have a blue ribbon on my bus for her. We don’t forget. And we won’t forget,” she said, hugging me.

A few streets over, a squad car idled in front of a “playa”-style home with an arched entranceway and a concrete front patio. About a dozen people stood in the driveway and on the lawn in the shade of a tree. Home to one of Chabad of Poway’s junior rabbis, it sits directly behind the synagogue.

The house is connected by a flight of steps in the backyard that lead up to a gate right in front of the synagogue’s downstairs parking lot.

Next to the house, a wooden fence lay flat on the ground. Shaina, a 15-year-old girl in a red sweatshirt, explained that the men, in such a panic fleeing down the steps out a back exit, ran through the downstairs parking lot, down the backyard steps and right through the fence. Shaina led a group of seven young children, including her little sister, down the steps and onto the street. A neighbor four houses down took in the children.

Shaina’s mother, Debra, had dark circles under her eyes. She spoke in a frantic staccato, staring straight ahead. “[Shaina] can’t sleep. She had nightmares. She can’t talk about it,” she said. She declined to have their last name in print. Debra arrived late to synagogue on the day of the attack.  There were already police cars on hand. “I knew. I just knew,” she said, fighting back tears. Then Shaina began to cry, too.

“We didn’t know where the kids were for almost an hour,” Debra said. “[Lori Gilbert-Kaye] was so brave. She’s a hero. It’s horrible what’s happened. He killed an amazing person, an incredible person. And for no reason. She gave everything to everyone. I have tulips sitting on my door because of her.” Apparently, Gilbert-Kaye enjoyed dropping off flowers on the doorstep of friends, just because.

By late morning, access to Espola Road was restored and hordes of people came to drop off flowers at the Chabad’s doorstep.

“We’re just in shock right now, just in shock,” Gary Abenaim said, standing in front of the blooming memorial. He and his wife, Negin Afari, live five minutes away in Rancho Bernardo. “You see this in the news elsewhere but this is personal. We’ve been here many times.”

Afari stared at the ground then shook her head in disbelief. “Our kids go to camp here.” She paused, before adding, “Jews need to get out and come to temples. Don’t stay home. Be proud that you’re Jewish. Stand in front of hate.”

At Temple Adat Shalom, a Reform synagogue about a mile away, Lon White, the temple’s senior adviser for security, walked me through the procedures his synagogue went through after hearing of the attack. Following initial concerns about a coordinated attack, Adat Shalom went into lockdown for three hours. Communications outreach went out to all congregants after the all clear was given.

“It’ll be unsettling for a time but this is a strong community of people,” he said. “We’ve been through these kinds of things for thousands of years and it’s going to take more than this to knock us down. My kids are in this building right now because I believe it’s a safe place to be. That’s a message I reinforce to other parents here.”

“You’re here to comfort us in this incredible tragedy. Because what happened to us happened to all of us. Your comfort, being here tonight, gives me incredible consolation.” — Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein

Inside the temple, cantor Lori Frank said, “There’s a strong interfaith community in the area we will lean on.” Hours after the April 27 shooting, she sang in front of hundreds at an interfaith vigil held at nearby Rancho Bernardo Community Presbyterian Church organized by POINT (Poway Interfaith Team).

“We just dropped everything and went to the vigil,” Frank said. “So many others did, too, on such short notice, including many of our Christian friends.”

After a brief interfaith service in English, Frank led songs in Hebrew in the courtyard. As the sun set, she and others realized they didn’t have everything they needed to make Havdalah.

“But we had candles,” she said. “So we gathered as people were leaving and did Havdalah. You could see in the faces of people there doing makeshift Havadalah that it was a powerful statement. We will persevere. You can’t stop us from observing. You can’t stop us from doing what we need to do. Judaism will go on. We’re here to make sure it continues.”

As the sun began to set on April 28, thousands descended on Valle Verde Park less than a mile from Chabad of Poway. Elected officials, law enforcement and faith leaders attended. Behind the outfield fence of a Little League Baseball field, where microphones, speakers and a pool of news cameras were set up, friends bumped into friends. Strangers shook hands. There were yarmulkes and the top hats of Chasidic Jews. Hijabs, too. Chasidim wrapped strangers in tefillin. A toddler in a Spider-Man jumpsuit observed from his father’s shoulders. Parents tried to keep their kids quiet. Some just let them roam off to the play structure.

Everyone helped one another light their candles, shielding their neighbors’ candles from the wind to prevent flames from going out. A car alarm blared. “Someone needs to turn that damn thing off,” someone said angrily.

It began to sprinkle. A man next to me tilted back his head, eyes aimed at the sky. “He’s crying,” he said. A woman held out her hands, cupping rain. “Yup. Definitely tears.”

Prayers were recited in Hebrew and English. Songs were sung. Mayor Vaus spoke. Others spoke, lauding the outpouring of support from around the globe and the GoFundMe drives for the victims.

Then, Rabbi Goldstein, America’s rabbi these past few days, stepped up to the microphone. The crowd become frenzied, elated at the sight of him.

By now, you probably know Goldstein or feel like you do. You probably know that he remained a voice of calm, a pillar of strength as bullets sprayed in the synagogue he and his family built when they moved from Brooklyn to the San Diego area in 1986. You’ve probably seen him interviewed on prominent media outlets, heard the shaking in his voice as he has retold his story and praised the heroes. You’ve probably seen the thick bandages on his hands and heard that he lost his right index finger after a four-hour surgery. A “scar I’ll carry with me forever,” he said.

When it was revealed Noya and Peretz, the other two who were wounded, were also at the vigil, the cheers grew louder.

You’ve probably heard their stories, too. How Peretz, visiting from the southern Israeli town of Sderot — a target of Hamas-launched rocket attacks from the Gaza Strip — sustained shrapnel wounds in the leg.

You’ve probably heard about his niece, Noya, who was injured by shrapnel in her leg and face; how her family moved from Sderot to San Diego County several years ago to escape violence.

And you’ve heard how Goldstein, Noya and Peretz are recovering, but that Gilbert-Kaye didn’t. That she was shot three times; that her husband, Howard, a doctor, tried to administer CPR and then fainted by her side. Many reports and eyewitness accounts assert she was protecting her friends and her rabbi.

As Goldstein stood in front of the vigil attendees with his bandaged hands, he declared: “We’re standing here right now in the heart of Poway surrounded by hundreds of wonderful people that I don’t know. You don’t know me, but you came out here because you have a heart. You have a soul. You’re here to comfort us in this incredible tragedy. Because what happened to us happened to all of us. Your comfort, being here tonight, gives me incredible consolation.”

Many people lingered on the grass after the vigil. Among them were Yusef Miller, 50, and Sulaiman Yonus, 33, two Islamic community activists affiliated with the Islamic Center of Escondido.

“They supported us when we had our fire at our mosque and we support them,” Miller said, referring to an arson attempt on the Islamic Center of Escondido a month before. A manifesto whose authenticity hasn’t been verified links the crime to the Chabad of Poway suspect. “Even before that,” he added, “we supported them when a swastika was painted on one of their houses. We have a back-and-forth relationship with the Jewish community.”

A man in a yarmulke interrupted us to shake hands with Miller and Yonus. “Thank you for supporting us,” he said. They nodded solemnly in reply.

Miller clasped his hands together and remained silent for a moment. “We want to show the people that think like this person that this cannot separate us,” he said. “We will band together and we will show love and solidarity, and we want everyone in the world to see this and do the same before tragedy happens.”

“For me,” Yonus said, “Jewish brothers and sisters are my brothers and sisters. That’s why I’m here, to support the sister who passed away. We have to increase the love between all of us.”

“We walk that walk here,” Miller added.

As vigil attendees walked back to their cars, many passed Chabad of Poway. They continued to drop off flowers and candles. The memorial site was still growing, the flames of lit candles beacons of hope in the darkness of night.