ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 138

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FBI investigating after shooter fires blanks in San Francisco Russian Jewish center

‘Stunned and shocked’: None injured as suspect shoots six empty rounds during study session for elderly Jews, who do not call police immediately after incident

Screenshots from CCTV footage of the Schneerson Center in San Francisco as an unknown man fires blanks into the room during a study session, February 1, 2023. (Courtesy/J. The Jewish News of Northern California via JTA)
Screenshots from CCTV footage of the Schneerson Center in San Francisco as an unknown man fires blanks into the room during a study session, February 1, 2023. (Courtesy/J. The Jewish News of Northern California via JTA)

J. The Jewish News of Northern California via JTA — A man fired blanks from a handgun inside a Jewish center in San Francisco on Wednesday, shocking a group gathered for a study session in a community space serving mainly Russian-speaking Jews.

But no one present called police, so it was not until word of the incident began circulating in the community that authorities became involved. Local police and the FBI are now searching for the suspect, whom they believe may have been the same person who brandished a gun at a local theater earlier in the week.

The man entered the Schneerson Center around 7:20 p.m. in the middle of a session on the life of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, according to Rabbi Bentzion Pil, who leads the community.

After the man entered, Pil said he first asked whether he wanted to join their session, but it soon became clear that was not his intention.

Instead, the man pulled out a gun and said in accented Russian that he was from Mossad and that he was going to start shooting, attendees said. Other outlets reported that he may have announced, “Say hello to Mossad for me.”

“I thought he was joking,” Pil told J. The Jewish News of Northern California on Thursday. “He looked like a Russian Jew.”

Located in a Richmond District neighborhood near what’s often called Little Russia, the Schneerson Center is a node of Jewish life for immigrants from the former Soviet Union in the Bay Area, where households from the former Soviet Union number between 15,000 and 20,000, according to Rabbi Shimon Margolin, who leads a local nonprofit serving Russian-speaking Jews.

A jarring video of the incident captured on a security camera shows what unfolded: A man wearing a baseball cap, jacket and sneakers enters the room and gestures animatedly with his arms while speaking to those seated around a table. After about 15 seconds, he reaches into his jacket pocket and reveals a handgun. He appears to struggle to cock the weapon, while an elderly man makes a phone call and starts walking toward him.

As the elderly man approaches, the suspect starts firing his weapon, and the elderly man crouches down. The man fires in a direction away from those seated around the table, then proceeds to fire around the room while some people clutch their ears and duck. In total the suspect fires between six and eight shots. Then he leaves.

“Everyone was stunned and shocked,” Pil said.

The video shows little movement from a dozen or so people around the table — many of whom are in their 60s or older, synagogue members said.

Pil said the group was perplexed. “It was so unexpected from him,” he said.

One person in the group said he might have seen the suspect before. After the shooting started, Pil said he went into the kitchen to grab a knife, but by the time he got back the man was gone.

After the man left, those gathered deliberated about whether to call the police, Pil said.

“I still believe it was just a crazy guy,” he said. “He didn’t scream any antisemitic words or expressions.”

Ultimately, Pil said, they decided it wasn’t worth contacting the police because they were unhurt and they doubted the man would be kept in detention for long if he was caught.

Only the next day was law enforcement contacted after some of the younger community members heard about what had happened.

“I was shaken,” said Alon Chanukov, who viewed the incident on security footage. He said he reached the San Francisco Police Department Thursday morning and was told the matter would be referred to the investigations unit.

Chanukov said the video disturbed him greatly.

“There is a man, with a gun, who was in my shul. And I see elderly people cowering as he is firing his gun,” he said.

“This is a terrorist attack. The point of this was to cause terror,” Chanukov said. “Not to kill people. But to literally terrify Jews, as best as I can see.”

Statistics compiled by the California attorney general’s office show a rise in hate crimes targeting Jews over the last 10 years. Jews are the most frequent target of religiously motivated hate crimes in the state, numbers that accord with national figures.

Mattie Pil, the rabbi’s wife, lent another interpretation as to why the mostly senior Jews from the former Soviet Union did not contact police.

“They still feel like they’re in the Soviet Union,” she said. “There, when something happens, it’s always the fault of the Jews. If you called police, it would be your fault. So they didn’t want to make any waves.”

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