Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, the Chabad of Poway leading rabbi, pushes the darkness away.
The terror attack the Chabad of Poway synagogue, located in Poway, a small town north-east of San Diego, experienced a month ago, was extensively covered by the media. Rabbi Goldstein has been up and down the land to recall and tell the details of the horrific attack.
On June 2, 2019, The Friendship Circle organization, which late Lori Kaye established in San Diego in 2005, organized a walk in memory of Lori, who was murdered at the Chabad of Poway terror attack, in which Steve Vaus, the Mayor of Poway, the Chabad of Poway synagogue members and people from all walks of life participated. Coinciding with the walk, at the Liberty Station Park, San Diego, was Israel Festival, a day in the park to celebrate Israel’s independence.
Living some 150 miles away, I decided that it would be a worthwhile Sunday trip to the south to honor the dead and those who experienced the horror. I, therefore, drove from my Los Angeles home to San Diego to partake in the greater picture: the statement that Am Yisrael Chai-the nation of Israel lives. I also had the honor to interview Rabbi Goldstein, the son of Rabbi Yossi Goldstein, a veteran educator, most known for his tape series ‘Uncle Yossi,’ about the darkest moment of Poway’s Jews and Poway’s residents as a whole.
I have been following Rabbi’s Goldstein’s activities since his injury during the terror attack in his synagogue. I carefully listened to what he has been saying, and I conclude that through the awful circumstances and Jewish life mysterious ways he is God’s sent to speak for the Jewish people; the rabbi is a messenger of goodness and hope.
I watch Rabbi Goldstein mingling in the park before the walk started and thereafter. In spite of the busy beyond grasp month he had experienced following the shooting in his synagogue, he is approachable, patient and friendly. He knows and acknowledges each person approaching him and is connecting the dots of mutuality, carrying himself nobly.
I wanted my story to be slightly different from all the stories and coverage we read and heard. I wanted to connect to the depth of the Rabbi’s Jewish heart.
The rabbi invited me to meet him at his office, where the terror incident took place. The building, located in Chabad Street, is most impressive and is distinguished. What is more noticeable, it is secured with electronic ring buttons to press and doors that do not open unless someone from the inside approves your entry. My first impression was, life as a Jew has its consequences.
We met at the synagogue lobby, and at the door, the rabbi said: “right here it turned dark for a long moment and then the miraculous bright light came on.”
The firstly unsung, but no longer, heroes were, Hashgachah Pratit, in theology, divine providence, God’s intervention in the universe, a miraculous moment with Oscar Stewart, an army veteran and Jonathan Morales off duty border patrol agent of whom the rabbi asked, “Arm yourself when you are here as you do not know what may one day happen.”
Sitting in his office, the rabbi appears tired. His wounded hands are still wrapped in the blue bandages, and he has no time to think how painful they are. He has been going nonstop, visiting the White House, giving interviews, speaking in public, and holding his community tightly together.
The rabbi goes over of what took place in his synagogue that Passover day.
“All of a sudden someone threw a chair at the shooter who was in the synagogue’s large foyer, and till today we do not know who did it. The first two rounds of bullets were coming toward Oscar, and he had a chance to take the shooter – a 19-year-old John Earnest – out. Instead, Oscar gave such a shout that the people in the church next door heard it and called 911. The shooter who had not gone further than the synagogue’s foyer, with that divine providence did not know how to change the empty magazine for a full one. He had enough ammunition and the full intention to kill us all. He started to leave,” the rabbi starts to recall.
“It is a new chutzpah in our country, one that no one knew before. The shooter, rather a privileged kid, was on the Dean’s list, studied nursing, basically from a good home with good upbringing, by far not a poor disenfranchised home status, not known to be mentally ill turned to be a pervert. Kids today are not taught the faith. Our Jewish children do not learn Judaism, our history, are ignorant, and we are losing them, as parents do not invest in Jewish education, and we do not make provision that Jewish education is not so expensive, and thus unaffordable to most.”
“Lori Kaye was the shooter’s first target he hit. She took the first bullet. She was standing in the foyer when I was coming from washing my hands. I was the shooter’s second target. The shooter never went into the sanctuary. If Lori was not there, he would have entered the sanctuary. If Lori was not there, I would have been his first target.”
“Zach Beresofsky, a 70-year-old Russia Jew from Odessa, who experienced antisemitism in Russia, came to live in Poway in early 1991. Zach was inside the sanctuary. He followed Jonathan and Zach, who both ran toward the shooter fleeing the scene. Zach’s car was parked behind’s the shooter’s car. Zach threw a rock at the shooter’s car, so it turns around and the divine providence acted again, the shooter drove off while Zach also called 911.”
Other divine providence, the shooter pulled in front of a restaurant its owner heard on the radio what is happening in the synagogue AND his partner happened to be the synagogue’s preschool director’s boyfriend. They informed the police of the shooter’s location.”
“Shneur, My son-in-law, was reading from the Torah as the first two bullets came flying through the synagogue and touched his head. The bullet only ripped the thread of his kippah-skullcap, but like a helmet, the kippah protected him. When you are busy reading the Torah, the divine providence protects you,” the rabbi recalls all the inexplicable miracles of that day.
“When you face darkness, facing a murderer with a rifle aiming at you, your instinct is to save the children. All I could think was to get the children in the synagogue to safety. After I saw to the children, not knowing that the shooter already left the building, I saw the faces of my congregants engulfed in fear. I did not know I was bleeding, but I knew I had to inspire my people. At one stage, I grabbed and wrapped my bleeding hands with a Tallit, a fringed garment traditionally worn by religious Jews during prayer. I stood in front of my people and gave a speech to calm them down. I reminded them that ‘In every generation, they stand up against us to destroy us. But the Holy One, Blessed Be He, redeems us from their hands’. That they are not going to defy us. Nothing will take us down!”
Rabbi Goldstein is a father of six and a grandfather of six. He came to settle in Poway on the last day of his Sheva Brachot week, literally ‘the seven blessings,’ also known as birkot nissuin, ‘the wedding blessings,’ in Jewish law are blessings that are recited for a bride and her groom as part of their marriage, taking place in the week that follows a Jewish wedding. “It was a nothing real estate here. Over the last 35 years, we built the synagogue and the community,” the rabbi tells me with gracious pride of the community he built and leads.
Life has changed for Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein. From hereon, he will be busy with public speaking, working to change hearts and minds, bring light to dark places and brighten places with existing light. His son will be leading of the Chabad of Poway congregation in prayer.
It is most apropos to recite Psalm 121: “The Lord will guard you from all harm; He will guard your life. The Lord will guard your going and coming now and forever.”