July 18, 2019

Jonah Sanderson Reacts to Poway Shooting With ‘The Time Is Now’ Initiative

After the April 27 shooting at Chabad of Poway, Beverly Hills Temple of the Arts rabbinic intern Jonah Sanderson launched a community-wide appeal. Heartbroken over the attack, he quickly contacted local leaders via email. The subject line was: “The Time Is Now.” He invited the Jewish community to heighten public awareness with a multifaceted approach, including increasing synagogue security and educating about early warning flags of potential violence.

Sanderson’s campaign — which predates the Poway shooting — has its roots in another incident. Last year, Sanderson lost a friend to suicide, which prompted the longtime Encino resident to become a “community advocate” for suicide prevention and depression. The loss gave Sanderson what he describes as a “greater purpose and further motivation to become a rabbi.”

The Journal spoke with Sanderson after the attack at Chabad of Poway about his vision for next-level response.

Jewish Journal: What steps are you hoping to facilitate as a communal response to the recent attack?

Jonah Sanderson: First, I’d like to create public forums and panel discussions dedicated to addressing mental health and gun violence. A “subcategory” of concern is white nationalism. Second, I’d like to put together a group to help parents spot signs of depression leading to radicalization in children and teens. And third, I’d like to form a panel on synagogue security. I’ve contacted community leaders, asking them to host these events in their homes and synagogues. Together, with their help, we’ll create panels of speakers and a curriculum.

JJ: What led you to this plan?

JS: I run a mental health project. It’s something I’m building my career around and am passionate about.

“My message to the shooter is simple: Your hatred has no place in our world. Our Jewish community is strong and our faith is strong.” — Jonah Sanderson

JJ: How did you create the initiative?

JS: With guidance from many rabbis, social workers and experienced psychologists, I helped create a home-based education program called “Torah and Mental Health.” This initiative brings suicide prevention and mental health advocates to educate groups of people in comfortable and intimate home settings. We have been successful in bringing this work throughout our community. This also led me to become an active contributor to an important new web project: “The Dreidel.”

JJ: What is “The Dreidel”?

JS: [It’s a] website run by Temple of the Arts, which aims to help combat anti-Semitism from a communal standpoint. A man named Richard Stellar started “The Dreidel” to give teens a platform to connect to Judaism and combat anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic rhetoric on campuses.

JJ: What kinds of material has “The Dreidel” published since the attack? And how do others get involved?

JS: “The Dreidel” published a piece for teens on what to do if there is an active shooter in their midst. It includes practical advice on familiarizing yourself with your surroundings and links to recommendations from Homeland Security.

JJ: Can you tell us more about your friend and how his suicide impacted you?

JS: My friend who took his life was Ben Beezy of the Valley Beth Shalom community. He suffered from chronic depression. My program was built with the help of Rabbi Richard Camras at Shomrei Torah Synagogue in West Hills. We bring in doctors and mental health workers as well as respected psychologists to speak to people on their terms in their homes. This educational program brings depression alleviation and suicide prevention to the fore by talking about it.

JJ: What prompted you to take further action after the Poway shooting and call your initiative “The Time Is Now”?

JS: We are facing an increase of hatred and anti-Semitism in our community and throughout the world. People of all faiths have been targeted in churches, mosques and synagogues. In the case of individuals who perpetuated many of these horrific attacks, mental illness clearly played a role. Before the attack on innocent Jews praying at the Chabad of Poway, it appears the shooter published a deeply troubling manifesto and was active on social media and fringe message boards. His words are deeply troubling, unabashedly anti-Semitic and draw parallels to other diatribes from known white supremacists and other perpetrators.

JJ: What is your message to the shooter?

JS: My message to the shooter is simple: Your hatred has no place in our world. Our Jewish community is strong and our faith is strong. After the Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh, Pa., last October, I was one of hundreds of thousands across the world who attended a Unity Shabbat service. We did not abandon our beliefs or our synagogues. We flocked to them just as we will again this Shabbat.

JJ: And what is your message to your Jewish brethren?

JS: My message to the community is the same today as it has been throughout my own personal Jewish journey. We need to live our lives based on the teachings in our Torah. We have and we need to continue to stand up to those who wish us harm, and we need to embrace our brothers and sisters of all faiths to fight hatred. I pray for those impacted physically and emotionally by the tragedy in Poway, and mourn the loss of Lori Gilbert-Kaye, who heroically gave her life to save her rabbi’s. May her memory be a blessing.


Lisa Klug is a freelance journalist and the author of “Cool Jew” and “Hot Mamalah: The Ultimate Guide for Every Woman of the Tribe.”