May 25, 2019

Remembering Lori Gilbert-Kaye: ‘She Was a Rainbow’

A blue-and-white sign inside the Chabad of Poway sanctuary indicates “Maximum Occupancy 696.” On the afternoon of April 29, with friends, family, community members, law enforcement representatives and elected officials gathered to honor Lori Gilbert-Kaye, the lone fatality in the April 27 attack, fire codes were no doubt violated.

All of the pews and dozens of rows of plastic folding chairs were filled with people who held onto the programs and boxes of Kleenex that had been placed on each seat. Attendees without seats stood in aisles and milled about in the lobby. A bank of news cameras on tripods lined the back of the room. An overflow crowd of thousands outside watched a livestream on a screen, courtesy of the Israel advocacy organization StandWithUs.

One man who had managed to find a seat tried to read Yuval Noah Harari’s book “21 Lessons for the 21st Century.” He couldn’t focus, his eyes red from crying. He gave up and shut the book, resting it on his lap. A woman filled in a crossword puzzle, sighing loudly in between scribbling down answers. Her friend, wailing, interrupted her. “Why? Just why?” she kept repeating. They hugged across their separate rows. Someone passed over tissues.

Chabadniks who traveled from all over to be at the memorial service sneaked in last-minute tefillin­ wrappings.

With a photo of Gilbert-Kaye smiling at the Western Wall in Jerusalem presiding over everyone from the bimah, a hush went over the crowd as the memorial service began. Steve Hoffman, Chabad of Poway’s president, stepped up to the podium. Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, now with a sling holding up his injured hand, sat on the bimah looking on.

Hannah walked up to the bimah wearing one of her mother’s pink dresses. “I chose to wear pink because my mother was a colorful woman. She was a rainbow and she would’ve loved it.”

“It’s not lost on me or on any of us that we’re at ground zero, the very place where an anti-Semitic terrorist came to tear us down,” Hoffman said. “We’ve now come together to build our community back up by remembering and celebrating the life of our dear friend Lori Kaye and to show that we stand tall against the darkness of evil and anti-Semitism in the world.”

Elan Carr, the U.S. State Department’s Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, spoke next. The former deputy district attorney for Los Angeles County and son of Iraqi Jewish refugees, Carr issued a rallying cry.

“Today, in Lori’s name, in the name of the 11 who were murdered six months and two days ago in Pittsburgh and in the name of every endangered Jew in the world and every endangered religious and ethnic minority in the world, today we pray for might and for strength,” he said. “So that we can vanquish this evil from our midst and build that better world that our children and our grandchildren so richly deserve. If that is what we do, and if that is to which we dedicate ourselves because of this ceremony and because of this, then Lori’s murder, as painful and heart-wrenching as it is, will not have been in vain.”

He added: “Yehi zichra baruch — “may her memory be a blessing” in Hebrew. The room erupted as he left the stage and took his seat.

Poway Mayor Steve Vaus, his usual cowboy hat replaced with a yarmulke, led a rendition of “God Bless America.” Before he began, he called up Oscar Stewart, the man who likely saved lives when he chased the suspect out of that synagogue 48 hours before. Vaus hugged him tightly and the crowd gave Stewart a standing ovation before swaying and singing together.

Close friends along with Gilbert-Kaye’s husband, Howard Kaye, and their daughter Hannah also spoke, painting an intimate portrait of the life lost.

A hush fell over the sanctuary when Hannah walked up to the bimah wearing one of her mother’s pink dresses. “I chose to wear pink because my mother was a colorful woman,” Hannah said. “She was a rainbow and she would’ve loved it.” Hannah unfolded her laptop on the podium, apologizing for not having time to print out her speech.

“She knew Judaism went beyond the text, beyond the guidance and beyond the synagogue,” Hannah said. “She also knew Judaism was about who you are as a person, how you treat others, how you respect and show love and kindness to all people. My mother lived her life this way. Everyone was her sister. Everyone was her trusted confidant. Everyone was her friend.”

After the memorial service, Gilbert-Kaye was laid to rest at El Camino Memorial Park in San Diego.

“We came here to heal as a community,” Audrey Jacobs said after the funeral. Jacobs, who lives in San Diego and works in private wealth management, was a close friend of Gilbert-Kaye’s. They met 14 years ago when their children attended Soille Hebrew Day School together. She has attended Chabad of Poway sporadically over the years.

“The most impactful moments were hearing her husband Howard and her daughter Hannah celebrate Lori’s life,” Jacobs said. “Listening to their intimate stories, everyone learned what a woman of valor Lori was and how her life was devoted to serving others.”

Being at the memorial was part of a whirlwind few days for Scott Silverman, 60, and his wife, Michelle, 65, close friends with the Kaye family. They spent April 27 at Palomar Medical Center comforting Howard, Hannah and other Kaye family members. Michelle had known Lori Gilbert-Kaye since they were youngsters in religious school together in the San Diego area. Scott and Michelle have known Hannah since she was born.

“Lori would’ve loved it all,” Michelle said. “We go back 50 years. She was such a news junkie. If there was something going on in the world, we’d text and talk until 1 in the morning. For her situation to be broadcast all over the world, with all the nice things being said about her, this would only bring her smiles. She’d be thriving in all this. It was just a very honorable tribute. It’s exactly how Lori would’ve loved to have been remembered.”

Silverman said he drew inspiration from the strength Hannah displayed in her speech about her mother. “It was spiritual for me personally,” he said. “[Hannah] is 22 and she articulated herself in a way that put just who Lori is together and she delivered it in such a way that was awe-inspiring. I can see the rise of her trajectory — just ultimately doing God’s work in a way we’ve probably never seen before.”