POWAY, Calif. — In the minutes after the gunman fled the scene of a shooting that killed a woman inside a Southern California synagogue, a wounded Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein wrapped his bloodied hand in a prayer shawl and addressed the panicked congregation, vowing to stay strong in the face of yet another deadly attack in a house of worship.
“We are a Jewish nation that will stand tall. We will not let anyone take us down. Terrorism like this will not take us down,” Goldstein recalled telling his congregants after the gunfire erupted Saturday at Chabad of Poway.
Congregant Lori Kaye, 60, was killed in the shooting, which injured Goldstein, 8-year-old Noya Dahan and her 34-year-old uncle, Almog Peretz, authorities said. Hours after the three wounded were released from hospitals, Goldstein described the ordeal at a news conference Sunday outside the synagogue north of San Diego.
Goldstein said he was preparing for a service on the last day of Passover and saw a young man wearing sunglasses standing in front of him with a rifle.
“I couldn’t see his eyes. I couldn’t see his soul,” Goldstein said. He raised his hands to protect himself and lost one of his fingers in the shooting.
And then, Goldstein says, “miraculously the gun jammed.”
The attack Saturday came exactly six months after a mass shooting in a Pittsburgh synagogue.
John T. Earnest, 19, surrendered to police after bursting into the synagogue north of San Diego and opening fire as about 100 people were worshipping inside.
Earnest, who had no previous contact with law enforcement, may face a hate crime in addition to homicide when he’s arraigned later this week, San Diego County Sheriff William Gore said. He was being held without bail, and it was unclear if he had an attorney. Police searched Earnest’s house and said he was also being investigated in connection with an arson attack on a mosque in nearby Escondido, California, on March 24.
The 8-year-old victim said she had just finished praying and was getting ready to go play with other children when gunshots rang out. Her uncle rushed her and the other children outside, the girl said.
Her leg was bleeding but doctors told her she didn’t need surgery, she said.
“I was really, really scared,” she said. “I didn’t see my dad. I thought he was dead.”
Her father, 32-year-old Israel Dahan, said he flipped over a folding table as soon as he saw the man enter carrying a long rifle. Then he rushed to get two of his other children to safety.
There were indications an AR-type assault weapon might have malfunctioned after the gunman fired numerous rounds inside, Gore said. An off-duty Border Patrol agent working as a security guard fired at the shooter as he fled, missing him but striking his getaway vehicle, the sheriff said.
Shortly after fleeing, Earnest called 911 to report the shooting, San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit said. When an officer reached him on a roadway, “the suspect pulled over, jumped out of his car with his hands up and was immediately taken into custody,” he said.
Goldstein described Kaye as a “pioneering, founding member” of the congregation and said he was “heartbroken” by her death.
“Lori took the bullet for all of his,” the rabbi said. “She didn’t deserve to die.”
He said that Kaye’s physician husband was called to tend to a wounded worshipper and fainted when he realized it was his wife.
When the gunfire erupted, another worshipper, Shimon Abitbul, said he immediately placed his 2-year-old grandson on the floor and waited for a break in the shooting to grab the boy and sprint away.
Then Abitbul ran back to the shooting scene to try to help a woman he described as having a hole in her chest and who later died, he said Sunday, tears streaming down his face.
Abitbul, who was visiting from Israel and staying with his daughter and her family in Southern California, said he was still coming to grips with the carnage.
“All of us are human beings,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you are Jews or Christians or Muslims.”
Peretz, who was wounded in the leg, was visiting from Israel, staying with family who had moved to California just a few months ago from the Israeli town of Sderot near the Gaza border, a frequent target of rocket attacks by the Hamas militant group. He said a man entered the synagogue and started shooting in all directions.
“I was with my back to the shooter. I heard a shot or two and then turned around to face him and that’s when he fired at me. I ran quickly, picking up a small girl in my hands,” he told the Israeli YNet news site. “He hit me once in the leg and I kept running. I didn’t feel it much since there were so many bullets flying by. I heard them and I saw them right next to me.”
Gore said authorities were reviewing Earnest’s social media posts, including what he described as a “manifesto.”
A person identifying himself as John Earnest posted an anti-Jewish screed online about an hour before the attack. The poster described himself as a nursing school student and praised the suspects accused of carrying out deadly attacks on mosques in New Zealand last month that killed 50 and at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue on Oct. 27, in which 11 people were killed.
“It was a hate crime, no doubt about it,” national security adviser John Bolton said on “Fox News Sunday.” He said investigators have not seen any connection between the suspect and other extremist groups.
California State University, San Marcos, confirmed that Earnest was a student who was on the dean’s list and said the school was “dismayed and disheartened” that he was suspected in “this despicable act.””
Several dozen people, many wearing black, gathered on a corner in Poway on Sunday to show their support for the victims and synagogue congregation and to call for an end to hate and violence.
They carried signs reading “no more killing” and “Shalom.” Drivers honked as they passed by. A young boy sat with a cardboard sign reading “we must do better”.
Deb Lira, 71, of San Diego, said she was angry and sickened by the attack in what has long been a peaceful community. “I’m here because I’m Jewish and this is my message,” she said, pointing to a sign that read “never again” and “never forget.”
“I will not be silent,” she said.
There was no known threat after Earnest was arrested, but authorities boosted patrols at places of worship Saturday and again on Sunday as a precaution, police said.