In April 2019 a gunman walked into a synagogue at Poway, California, and opened fire. Panic reigned and people ran for cover as the man, equipped with what appeared to be an assault rifle, sprayed shots into the Chabad establishment. Four worshippers were hit, leaving one, a woman, lying motionless on the floor.
Despite the chaos, Howard Kaye, a doctor who had been attending the service at the house of worship, gave emergency help to the stricken woman. But there was to be a horrible surprise for him. And moreover, the outcome of that April day would leave the community he is a part of reeling.
Meanwhile, Oscar Stewart, an Iraq veteran from nearby Rancho Bernardo, took action of his own. He took off after the gunman, shouting at him. Stewart told U.K. newspaper The Guardian that he had frightened the shooter off. He said, “I yelled at him and he dropped his weapon and he ran out. He looked scared.”
The gunman sprinted out of the synagogue and took off in his car. As he vanished from the scene, a security guard – who in his day job works for the Border Patrol – took a few shots, striking the car. Not long afterwards, someone suspected to be the shooter rang 911 and told the dispatcher that he had played a part in the events at the synagogue.
Poway is not at all used to these kinds of events. Indeed, it’s an area of California noted for its low levels of crime. Known for its slogan “The City in the Country,” Poway is located on the northeast rural fringe of San Diego. And the Chabad of Poway synagogue has grown into a thriving hub for Jews wanting to learn about traditional values.
When he first founded the Chabad of Poway in 1986, Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein gathered his congregation in a storefront in the mall at Rancho Bernardo. But eventually, these meetings moved to today’s center, built in 1997. This complex sprawls over 20,000 square feet and includes a preschool and meeting rooms.
Here on April 27, 2019, the congregation had gathered for a service that formed part of Passover. This festival – which marks the start of the harvest in Israel – mostly relates to the events of the Exodus. This refers to the end of four centuries of slavery for the Jewish people, described in the Bible’s book of the same name.
The specific service that the worshippers were attending is Yizkor, a special event for mourning those very close to the devotee. Its title derives from the Hebrew word yizkor, which means “remember.” The prayers at the service – which is only performed on four occasions in a year – are intended to help bring merit to the departed soul.
On the day of the shooting, the service had started at 11:00 a.m. and had been going on for about 20 minutes before the gunman walked in. Kitted out in military gear and wearing spectacles, he toted what the county sheriff Bill Gore described as an “AR-15 style” rifle. A witness said the man had been cursing when he began shooting.
A person who had been at the synagogue later told KGTV that the shooter had fired six or seven times. The firing had set off screaming in the synagogue, but the gunman shot again. Despite the chaos, the rabbi – who himself had been hit – attempted to mollify the attacker and soothe his congregation.
A newly arrived worshipper, Danny Almog, heard noises that he mistook for a dropping chandelier or smashing chairs. Once he heard screams of “Shooting!” he hit the floor and scrambled to get to his children, who were in the playroom with as many as a dozen others. He could see that his father-in-law was protecting his son with his own body.
Meanwhile, Almog searched in panic for his daughter. It turned out his buddy, Almog Peretz, had grabbed her along with some of the other children and had taken them to a house nearby to shelter. This had put him in the line of fire and shrapnel had wounded him in the leg.
Despite Peretz’s heroic actions, one child couldn’t stay entirely safe and pieces of shrapnel hit her in the face and leg. Noya Dahan, aged eight, had been at the service alongside her sisters. Her dad Israel expressed his anguish to the Daily Mail. He said, “We’re shocked. It’s a little bit scary. We’re all over the place.”
Incredibly, Dahan’s family had arrived to the United States from Israel to get away from danger. Indeed, rockets had hurt Israel Dahan and his wife. He told, the Daily Mail, “[We were] under the impression that everything is good here. Today we noticed this is not even close to be regular life.”
For her part, Noya Dahan had escaped further injury by hiding. But she couldn’t understand what was going on, as she told CBS News. She explained, “I knew that something was wrong because it wasn’t adding up to me, because I heard loud sounds. It was very, very scary, and I’m not supposed to go through this stuff.”
The person responsible for this chaos was alleged to be a teenage man by the name of John T. Earnest. From Rancho Peñasquitos, another suburb of San Diego, Earnest had not long graduated from high school and was studying nursing at a campus of California State University. The authorities confirmed that he had no criminal record. And there was nothing to suggest a link to white supremacists.
The gunman had been unsuccessful in an attempt to make a live stream of the shooting on Facebook. However, someone signing with his name had posted a letter full of hate speech online a short while before the attack. Whoever wrote that said that, “I am a testament to the fact that literally anyone can do this.”
The letter that Earnest is thought to have written included some angry feelings about Jews. The writer claimed that he had been inspired by a synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh and the previous month’s attack on mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. When he phoned 911, he is alleged to have told the dispatcher he had done the shooting because “Jewish people are destroying the white race.”
Furthermore, the letter writer claimed responsibility for attempted arson at an Escondido mosque. Seven people had been inside the religious center when it was set alight in the early hours. Luckily, one had been awake and rallied the other six to help extinguish the fire. Whoever had caused the blaze had left a message that mentioned the New Zealand mosque murders.
Whatever the truth of that, Earnest himself was apprehended by a cop who had heard about the incident over his radio. He had been on his way to the synagogue when he got the word and found the alleged shooter’s car. On the cop’s arrival, Earnest leapt from his vehicle with his hands raised.
Unsurprisingly, the shooting shocked the community. Sheriff Gore explained to The San Diego Union-Tribune, “Sadly, we’re seeing these things happen all over the country and now even in our backyard.” Meanwhile, Poway’s mayor, Steve Vaus, told The Guardian that the shooter was “someone with hate in their heart… towards our Jewish community.”
President Donald Trump echoed the mayor’s feeling that the shooting had been motivated by hatred. He expressed his condolences at a White House press conference. “My deepest sympathies go to the people that were affected,” he said. “At this moment, it looks like a hate crime. Hard to believe, hard to believe.”
One of those hit by the flying bullets had been the rabbi who had founded the synagogue, Yisroel Goldstein. He had been struck in both hands, badly hurting his index fingers. Despite surgery on his two digits, the rabbi would later lose one. However, he would be saved from worse.
That’s because one of the congregation leapt in front of the bullets as the rabbi was fired upon. The woman, whom friends identified as Lori Gilbert-Kaye, was struck down by the gunfire. She fell to the floor and lay there without moving. Help came quickly to hand, but it would prove too late.
Then, Iraq vet Oscar Stewart – who, as we’ve seen, had confronted the shooter – came to the woman’s side to do CPR. But he soon realized that it was to no avail. In the confusion though – and not knowing that Gilbert-Kaye had already passed – a doctor arrived to take over.
Desperate to revive her, the doctor, Howard Kaye, began CPR on the fallen woman. He had absolutely no idea that it was his own wife – he just put his skills into effect to try to save her life. However, as Stewart had realized, Gilbert-Kaye’s life had already ended. And then Kaye discovered whom he’d been working on.
First, Kaye noted that the woman who had been shot was no longer breathing, still not recognizing who she was. But when he attempted to find a pulse on Gilbert-Kaye, he discovered it was his wife. That realization proved to be more than the doctor could bear in the moment.
Kaye fell into a faint, stricken by the shock of seeing his wife fatally shot in front of him. Later, he could take comfort that she had passed very rapidly and without any suffering. He told attendees at her funeral, “[She] went straight up and right now, that’s where she is.”
Goldstein described the scene to the New York Post. He said, “[Kaye was lying] on the floor next to his wife. And then the daughter comes out screaming. It was the most heart-wrenching sight I could ever have seen.” The rabbi, unsurprisingly, remembered Gilbert-Kaye with a great deal of gratitude, since she had arguably saved his life.
Goldstein told the Daily Mail, “Lori took the bullet for all of us. She didn’t deserve to die.” And remembering Gilbert-Kaye, he paid her a fine tribute, expressing what he felt about her. He continued, “She was the kindest person I have ever known and the community has ever known. We’re in such shock.”
Indeed, the rabbi lauded his brave savior as “the ultimate woman of kindness.” He told Brian Stelter of CNN that he had known Gilbert-Kaye for more than 25 years. He said, “She was one of the pioneering members of our congregation. She is not just a member, she’s an activist.”
Goldstein even said that he owed the existence of the synagogue to Gilbert-Kaye. He told the New York Post, “It’s because of her that we could build this building.” He went on to explain, “When we bought our property and we needed a construction loan, she was working at Wells Fargo and she went to the top to secure us a loan so we could build our community.”
Gilbert-Kaye’s generosity didn’t end there, the rabbi explained to the Daily Mail. “She’s one of those people who are always there to be able to help others in their time of need,” he said. “When people are diagnosed with cancer, she would be dragging them to appointments and would bring flowers to cheer people up and bake Shabbat challah just to bring the family some happiness.”
One of those who has been left mourning Gilbert-Kaye is her daughter Hannah. Just 22, she had wed only two weeks before. Chana Goldstein, the sister-in-law of the synagogue’s rabbi, told the New York Post, “We were dancing with her two weeks ago.” It’s no surprise that a friend reported that both Hannah and her father were left devastated.
Because the service of the day was Yizkor, Gilbert-Kaye had intended to say the “Kaddish” for her mother. She had passed in November 2018, and it’s normal to say the prayer for a deceased loved one for 11 months after their passing. For Jews, it’s a way to celebrate God in spite of their recent loss.
Gilbert-Kaye’s friend Ronneet Lev, a hospital doctor, hailed her as a “people person,” and remembered how she would do good for others. “God picked her to die to send a message because she’s such an incredible person,” Lev claimed to The San Diego Union-Tribune. “He took her for a higher purpose to send this message to fight anti-Semitism.”
Lev told CNN that she did not believe Gilbert-Kaye’s death had been senseless. She said, “She died advertising the problem we have with anti-Semitism and to bring good to this world.” She then added her personal feelings about the fallen woman, saying, “If God put an angel on this planet, it would have been Lori.”
Despite the tragedy of Gilbert-Kaye’s loss, it was fortunate that she proved the only fatality. Authorities have said that the gunman’s weapon may have jammed while he shot at the worshippers. Indeed, that may well have been the reason that he did not kill more. The alleged shooter, Earnest, may himself face death by execution should he be found guilty of the crime.
Talking about the day, Rabbi Goldstein urged change. He told CBS News, “We have lost our soul.” Meanwhile, Minoo Anvari, whose husband had been present at the shooting, had a defiant message for The San Diego Union-Tribune. She said, “One message from all of us in our congregation is that we are standing together, we are getting stronger. Never again. You can’t break us. We are strong.”
Naturally, news of Gilbert-Kaye’s demise spread around the world. In Israel, the minister of diaspora affairs, Naftali Bennett, recognized her sacrifice. “Lori Gilbert-Kaye is a Jewish heroine and will be remembered as a heroine in Jewish history,” told The Times of Israel. “It is clear that such heroism and good deeds are not only characteristic of dear Lori in death, but that this was the way she lived her life.”