'I put my hands up, and my fingers got blown away'

Poway rabbi shot in hand recounts being face-to-face with synagogue killer

Yisroel Goldstein says community won’t be intimidated by terrorism, calls on government to step up security at all places of worship

Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein of Chabad of Poway, California. (Facebook)
Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein of Chabad of Poway, California. (Facebook)

The rabbi shot while conducting services in Poway, California, told US media Sunday that his congregation would continue to grow from the “horrific” attack and would not allow terrorism to win, as he described coming face-to-face with the killer.

Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein was in stable condition after being shot in the hand by a gunman, identified by police as 19-year-old John Earnest.

Earnest, 19, surrendered to police after bursting into Chabad of Poway, north of San Diego, on Saturday and opening fire with about 100 people inside, killing Lori Gilbert-Kaye, 60, and injuring Rabbi Goldstein, Noya Dahan, 8, and Almog Peretz, 34, authorities said.

“I heard a large bang, a large noise,” Goldstein told the Today show on Sunday. “I turned around and I am face to face with this murderer terrorist, who is holding the rifle and looking straight at me. And then as soon as he saw me he started to shoot towards me. And that’s when I put my hands up, and my fingers got blown away. And then he continued on and he killed Lori Kaye right there on the spot.

People attend a prayer and candlelight vigil at Rancho Bernardo Community Presbyterian Church on April 27, 2019 in Poway, California.(David McNew/Getty Images/AFP)

“I turned around and I saw a group of children in the banquet hall, including my granddaughter and I just ran, not even knowing that my fingers were blown off, and got the kids outside, got everyone out of the sanctuary safely,” said Goldstein, noting the presence of an off-duty guard at the site.

An off-duty Border Patrol agent working as a security guard fired at the shooter as he fled, missing him but striking his getaway vehicle.

Shortly after fleeing, Earnest called 911 to report the shooting, San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit said. When an officer reached him on a roadway, “the suspect pulled over, jumped out of his car with his hands up and was immediately taken into custody,” Nisleit said.

The gunman didn’t say a word during the rampage, said the rabbi. “Not a word that I can remember. I cannot erase that face from my mind.”

Suspected San Diego shooter John Earnest (YouTube screenshot)

Goldstein urged the US government to step up security at all sites of worship and said the Jewish community would not be cowed.

“We are so grateful to live here in this country that protects our rights to live openly and proudly as Jews. One thing is for sure… we will not be intimated by this. Terror will not win,” said the rabbi.

“I’m just out of surgery and much thoughts are running through my mind. This horrific event must raise alarm and safety for all places of worship. Our government must step up… and secure our houses of worship.

“I pray for healing during this time of pain and grief. And I ask that we all do something, something to add more light to combat this evil darkness that’s out there.”

In the phone interview, Goldstein remembered Gilbert-Kaye as a “pioneering” founding member of the congregation.

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

When three decades ago, as a young rabbi, he sought to establish the congregation, “Lori was one who helped me secure the construction loan,” the rabbi said. “She’s been a steadfast member, supporter, philanthropist. Just a kind soul. Everyone in the community knew her.”

“She is such a dear friend. I’ve known her for 33 years. I am so heartbroken and saddened by this senseless killing.”

Outside the synagogue, before emergency services arrived, Goldstein said, he continued his sermon to give his community members encouragement.

“I continued it [the sermon] outside, as we were sheltering and waiting in place for authorities to arrive, I got up there and I just spoke from the heart and 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, we’re not going to let that happen here. Not here in San Diego, not here in Poway, not here in the United States of America.”

Goldstein last month forcefully condemned the deadly attacks in New Zealand targeting Muslims at prayer, in which 50 people were killed.

“Attacking innocent people is abhorrent! It is abhorrent when it is a shul [synagogue] in Pittsburg and it is abhorrent when it is in a Mosque in New Zealand! Every human being is created in the image of G-d. Human life is precious. Our prayers and thoughts are with the people of New Zealand,” he wrote on Facebook at the time.

Rabbi Yonah Fradkin, executive director of Chabad of San Diego County, said that “in the face of senseless hate we commit to live proudly as Jews in this glorious country. We strongly believe that love is exponentially more powerful than hate. We are deeply shaken by the loss of a true woman of valor, Lori Kaye, who lost her life solely for living as a Jew.”

AP contributed to this report.

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