Saturday was the last day of Passover — one of the four times during the yearly cycle of holidays that Jews recite Yizkor, the prayer for the dead and for martyrs.
There were several dozen people in attendance for the service at the Chabad of Poway, the only Orthodox synagogue in northern suburbs of San Diego. Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, a respected leader in the Chabad Hasidic movement, had helped build the synagogue in the mid-1980s with the help of a few committed members. That included Lori Gilbert Kaye, a frequent congregant for 30 years.
Now younger families had swung into this Chabad center’s orbit for Goldstein’s warmth and the synagogue’s educational programs. One Israeli family, the Dahan clan, had enrolled children in the religious school. Almog Peretz, whose sister Eden had married a Dahan, had become a frequent presence alongside his nieces during his frequent visits from Israel.
Then a 19-year-old gunman, compelled by a digital chorus of voices blaming Jews for the decline of the white race, walked into Chabad of Poway and forever upended the lives of the congregants there, six months to the day that another man had done the same, compelled by the same, in Pittsburgh.
Yet the story of Poway quickly became one of repeated acts of courage and defiance in the face of a man holding an AR-15-style weapon.
Goldstein was shot in the hand and required surgery. Almog Peretz was hit with bullet shrapnel, as was his young niece, Noya Dahan. When the gunman burst in, Peretz and several others quickly gathered as many children as they could and fled for the emergency side exits, towards the rabbi’s house nearby. And Lori Gilbert-Kaye was killed after she set herself between the gunman’s assault rifle and her rabbi of three decades.
“There were many small kids next to me,” Peretz, 32, told one news outlet. “I took a little girl who was our neighbor and three nieces of mine and ran. I opened the back door and we ran with all the children to a building in the back. I hid them in that building.”
Even in the chaos of the moment, after the gunman’s gun jammed and he fled, Goldstein stood before his congregation, bloody hand wrapped in a prayer shawl, and finished his sermon before the service for the martyrs.
“I got up there and just spoke from my heart,” he recalled. “Just giving everyone the courage to know, it was just 70 years ago during the Holocaust we were gunned down like this, and I just want to let my fellow Americans know that we’re not going to let this happen.”
The shooting brought Israeli and American Jews together under the same threat: White supremacist terrorism, fueled by a shadowy online network of forums and social media sites where sharing talk and images of violence against minorities is encouraged and applauded.
“It doesn’t matter where we go, we have to look out for ourselves,” Peretz told an Israeli radio station on Sunday. “In Sderot, where I used to live, didn’t they also fire rockets at us? I didn’t believe this would happen in a place like this.”
The shooter, according to a manifesto posted online that appears to have been written by him, took inspiration from the man who killed 50 Muslims at prayer in New Zealand earlier this year — and from the one who killed 11 Jews in Pittsburgh six months ago. He also stocked the manifesto with inane internet jokes apparently designed to annoy the people whose lives he wanted to take.
One of the girls Peretz grabbed was the daughter of another Israeli man whose family has settled in Poway. That man said that Peretz was hurt when he stopped to pick up another child as he closed in on the exit.
“He pointed the gun at me, I saw him do it,” Peretz said in describing the scene to another news station. “He saw me and didn’t shout anything. He stood in the same spot the entire time, next to the entrance to the synagogue because he wanted to be close to the door – to get away. If I was losing my mind, imagine what the kids were going through; they didn’t know where to run.”
Shimon Abitbol, visiting for the holiday, jumped on his grandson when he heard the shots go off.
“Without thinking twice I lay down on my grandson and protected him,” Abitbol told Times of Israel. “After I counted seven or eight gunshots and there was a lull — I assume the weapon jammed — I took the grandson and rushed outside through a side door; we gathered all the children there.”
And Gilbert-Kaye, 60, leapt up to shield Goldstein, the rabbi, as the shooter point his gun at him. She was shot multiple times. After the gunman fled, a doctor in the community raced over the Gilbert-Kaye to perform emergency CPR. But when the man realized that the person he was treating was his wife, he fainted.
The gunman was chased out of the synagogue by congregants who leapt into action when his gun jammed, and an off-duty border patrol agent shot at his car as he drove away. He shortly afterwards surrendered himself to authorities.
As news spread of the shooting, Pittsburgh’s Jewish community spoke of its heartbreak, as did many other communities. President Trump commented and tweeted about the attack in between remarks on his round of golf Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his upcoming rally in Wisconsin.
The attack hit the family of Almog Peretz hard. His brother, Jake Rotem Peretz, 36, had just been in Poway with his family to celebrate the Passover seders. The family is Sephardic, and a video of the seder Jake shared with the Forward shows the family enjoying a backyard seder as Middle Eastern pop music blares. Two-liter bottles of Coca-Cola and juice, as well as large pots of food, dot the table, filled in by many other smaller plates of salads and appetizers. The grill is going strong in the background.
Almog Peretz can be seen dancing to the music with Noya Dahan, his sister’s daughter — just one week before he saved her from a shooter in their synagogue.
Jake Peretz, also an uncle to Noya, spoke to the Forward by phone from his home in Queens, New York. He says he has not spoken directly with his family members, but has been receiving text message updates along with the rest of his family from his sister, Eden Dahan, the mother of Noya.
Jake Peretz said that his brother Almog is a selfless person, and he was not surprised to learn that Almog had heroically rushed several children out of an emergency exit.
“He’s not scared of nobody,” Jake said. “He has a good heart. He doesn’t care to die to save kids. He loves children.”
Gilbert-Kaye, a pillar of San Diego’s Jewish community, is being mourned by many. Her friend, Audrey Jacobs, a local activist in San Diego, shared a memorial Facebook post for Gilbert-Kaye, calling her “a true Eshet Chayil, a Woman of Valor.”
Gilbert-Kaye’s funeral is set for Monday afternoon.
Jake Peretz had a frantic morning on Sunday, waiting for the chance to speak to his sister or his brother, to hear from them that everyone was okay instead of relying on news reports from the TV.
Texts from his sister told him that Noya was alright, and that Almog would be fine. Eventually, he received a selfie from his brother, a sly smile playing on his face as he stood in a hospital gown, permanent five o’clock shadow in place, his black hair somehow styled into curls at the front.
Goldstein emerged from surgery and at least a few hours of reprieve before entering the national media spotlight on Sunday, speaking to the Today Show.
“Terror will not win,” he vowed, echoing his Sabbath morning sermon.
“That scar is going to remind me how vulnerable we are, but also how heroic each of us can be, to stand up, to fight against terror,” he added.