'What's happened in the synagogue. You can't imagine it'

For veteran Israeli medic, a California ‘heaven’ shattered by familiar bloodshed

Magen David Adom’s Shimon Abitbul traveled to Poway for his grandson’s bris. When he went to synagogue on Shabbat, he endured something he never thought possible in America

Shimon Abitbul, deputy director of the Yarkon Region for Magen David Adom in Israel. (Courtesy)
Shimon Abitbul, deputy director of the Yarkon Region for Magen David Adom in Israel. (Courtesy)

WASHINGTON — Shimon Abitbul is no stranger to bloodshed.

A deputy director for the Israeli Magen David Adom ambulance service, Abitbul has served as a paramedic in some of the country’s deadliest conflicts. Most notably, he was the rescue service’s station chief in Kiryat Shmona, his hometown on Israel’s northern border, which was battered by Hezbollah rockets during the Second Lebanon War in 2006.

But on Saturday, Abitbul witnessed a kind of violence far more unexpected and disturbing, he said, than anything he’s encountered before.

He was attending morning services at Chabad of Poway with two of his grandchildren and his son-in-law when a man entered the sanctuary and opened fire.

Lori Gilbert-Kaye, 60, was killed, and eight-year-old Noya Dahan and her 34-year-old uncle Almog Peretz were injured, as was the synagogue’s rabbi, Yisroel Goldstein.

A San Diego county sheriff’s deputy stands in front of the Chabad of Poway synagogue, Sunday, April 28, 2019, in Poway, Calif. A man opened fire Saturday inside the synagogue near San Diego as worshippers celebrated the last day of a major Jewish holiday. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)

Earlier in the week, Abitbul, 60, was in that same synagogue for the bris (circumcision) of his youngest grandson — whose birth had brought him out to California.

Abitbul’s daughter has lived in San Diego’s close-knit suburb of Poway for six years, he said. He comes to see her at least twice a year.

Abitbul said Poway is like a second home, but where he often feels safer than in Kiryat Shmona, which lies on the border with Lebanon, whose Hezbollah terror group has vowed to destroy the Jewish state.

“I come from Israel, I know what a security situation is,” Abitbul said. “When I come here, I feel like heaven.”

Israeli medics evacuate a woman from her home after a Hezbollah rocket attack in the northern Israeli town of Kiryat Shmona Thursday July 27, 2006. (Flash90.)

Until heaven was hijacked.

Abitbul went with his five-year-old granddaughter, two-year-old grandson, and son-in-law to Shabbat morning services this weekend, which also fell on the final day of Passover. After an hour and a half of the service, Abitbul told The Times of Israel, his restless grandson wanted to go outside and play.

He took the boy and guided him outside the temple, toward a back reception area. A few seconds after they entered that room, he heard gun shots.

“At this moment, I put my grandson on the floor, and my body on him, and I shut his mouth. No screaming,” Abitbul said. “After seven shots, I heard the rabbi scream: ‘Don’t stand! Lay down!'”

Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein speaks at a news conference at the Chabad of Poway synagogue, Sunday, April 28, 2019, in Poway, Calif. A man opened fire Saturday inside the synagogue near San Diego as worshippers celebrated the last day of a major Jewish holiday. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)

Once he heard no further eruptions, Abitbul said he took his grandson to find his granddaughter and son-in-law. When he saw that they were safe, he went on his own to check on the wounded. (He said he never got a look at the shooter — who, by that time, had fled the scene.)

By the door, Abitbul noticed Gilbert-Kaye, who had been shot and was lying on the ground. She wasn’t moving.

“One woman was on the floor unconscious,” he described. “I went to check her pulse. I was down on my knees and there was a man next to her. He said to me: ‘She’s my wife.'”

Abitbul realized there was a hole in the woman’s chest. “It killed me in this moment,” he said.

Lori Gilbert-Kaye, who was killed in a shooting at a San Diego County synagogue on April 27, 2019 (Facebook)

Gilbert-Kaye’s husband, a doctor, fainted when Abitbul began to perform CPR, he said. “When it happens to the family, you are not thinking,” he explained, in his Israeli accent.

“It’s not normal that you’re going to give treatment to your bride. I can understand him,” Abitbul said, “It’s a moment that I cannot forget, I think for all my life.”

Poway paramedics soon arrived and took Gilbert-Kay to the hospital. Other congregants said she had shielded the rabbi from the gunman’s bullets, jumping in front of the assailant.

Not long after the attack, the alleged shooter was detained. Poway authorities said the suspect was John T. Earnest, a 19-year-old student who was on the dean’s list of a local college where he was studying nursing. He was booked into custody on one count of murder in the first degree and three counts of attempted murder in the first degree.

Suspected San Diego shooter John Earnest (YouTube screenshot)

Outside the classroom, Earnest appeared to have been steeped in white nationalist theory, and consumed by a hatred of Jews.

Hours before he entered the Poway Chabad, he apparently posted a manifesto online, in which he warned that Jews were seeking to replace the white race. He cited Adolf Hitler as one of his inspirations, along with Robert Powers, the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter, and Brenton Tarrant, the Christchuch mosque attacker.

Speaking to The Times of Israel one day after the shooting, Abitbul said he was in a state of disorientation and shock. He had been unaware, he said, of the extent to which anti-Semitic violence was taking place in the United States — that it could infect a community such as Poway.

“I come here to visit my grandson and my child about every six months,” he said. “This is the first time that I learned about the anti-Semitism here.”

Abitbul went on, “You come here and you think: This is the greatest democracy in the world, and you see what’s happened in the synagogue. You can’t imagine it.”

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