Yaakov Amos had just finished calling silently on God to “grant peace everywhere, goodness and blessing; grace, loving kindness and mercy to us and unto all Israel, Your people,” when two terrorists stormed into Har Nof’s largest synagogue at 7:01 a.m. on Tuesday.
Amos, a trained trauma therapist, was in the middle of the Amidah prayer when he heard a pair of gunshots issued in quick succession. “Boom-boom,” he said.
He swiveled around fast, his feet still together in prayer, and saw “a Jew in phylacteries” on the floor.
In those seconds, Amos was transported from the calm of the meditative prayer into the middle of a massacre, as terrorists armed with a gun, a knife and meat cleaver killed four people and injured several more. Witnesses and rescue workers described a gruesome scene inside the Jerusalem synagogue, with blood spattering prayer books and people in the middle of prayer caught in the carnage.
A former infantryman in the Givati Brigade, Amos, dressed in the black-and-white garb of the ultra-Orthodox, said that the gunman did not fire wildly into the congregation of worshipers but rather “closed the gap,” running up close to his victims and shooting them “in the head, from point-blank range.”
He ducked behind what is known as a shtender, a wooden podium used to support books for prayer and study, and then, once the gunman ran past him, he stumbled out the open synagogue doors, losing his phylacteries in the process, and ran across the street to his family.
Joseph Pasternak, a father of eight originally from Argentina, was also caught in the middle of the silent prayer.
He said he saw both terrorists, one with a handgun and one with “a butcher’s knife,” entering the synagogue. A man near him threw a chair at the gunman; Pasternak said he felt trapped, caught between the need to hide and the need to flee.
“I saw people lying on the floor, blood everywhere. People were trying to fight with (the attackers) but they didn’t have much of a chance,” he said.
After several seconds, Pasternak said, he regained the ability to run and he dashed out of the synagogue and into a hallway closet, from which he heard the sounds of the murder, the exchange of fire with police, and then finally a semblance of quiet.
Chief Inspector Micky Rosenfeld, foreign spokesman for the Israel Police, told reporters in a conference call that the police are currently trying to figure out why the two terrorists, from the southeast Jerusalem neighborhood of Jabel Mukaber, crossed the city and attacked a house of worship on the western fringe of Jerusalem.
A man who gave his name only as Yossi, an ultra-Orthodox resident of the neighborhood, said that the synagogue typically puts out coffee, tea, and cakes early in the morning and that many of the Arab workers in the region were aware of this.
Others, gathered outside the police barricades, suggested that the two terrorists worked in the neighborhood and that perhaps the target was the famous synagogue of the late Rav Ovadia Yosef, which is adjacent.
Sarah Abrams, a mother of five, was out on her daily morning walk, earphones in her ears, when she heard from a friend that something was going on at the synagogue. At first, she said, as she approached, she thought there had been a personal feud at the synagogue.
“There were people running from the synagogue, and a man sitting on the pavement covered in blood; it looked like he has been stabbed,” she said. “Two people came out with their faces half missing, looking like they’d been attacked with knives.”
Seconds later, two policeman arrived at the scene and began firing into the synagogue.
Standing behind a parked car, she said she saw ZAKA Identification, Extraction and Rescue volunteers dash into the building but that the police remained at the stairs near the entry. Abrams, who filmed those moments on her phone, then saw one of the terrorists emerge from the synagogue, where he was shot by the police.
Rosenfeld praised the police officers’ actions, saying they were prompt and prevented further loss of life, and noted that the police are looking into whether the two terrorists were affiliated with Hamas or Islamic Jihad and, presumably, to determine whether this attack was more in line with the screwdriver stabbing last week – a random and rather unplanned act of violence – or with the attempted assassination of Temple Mount activist Yehuda Glick, which clearly was premeditated and required a certain amount of planning.
Retired police Maj. Gen. Dan Ronen, the head of operations during the Second Intifada, said in a conference call that police could not prevent all terror attacks and that terror, which he said has shadowed Israel since its inception in 1948, “is something built into our lives, unfortunately.”