Mourners outside Chabad of Poway
Mourners outside Chabad of Poway. Photo by Joe Nalven

Mourners will gather Monday at a memorial service for a woman gunned down at a Poway synagogue by an alleged radicalized anti-Semite while celebrating the final day of Passover.

Lori Gilbert Kaye, described by her rabbi, Yisroel Goldstein, as one of Congregation Chabad’s “pioneers,” was a former bank employee who helped get the congregation a loan to build its house of worship in northern San Diego County.

Monday afternoon’s funeral for Kaye, 60, will take place just two days after a gunman opened fire with an assault rifle at the synagogue, killing her and wounding three others, including Goldstein.

The rabbi — who lost his right index finger in the shooting and spent hours in surgery as medical personnel worked to save his other one — told reporters Kaye was shot while at the temple with her husband and daughter to honor her mother, who recently died.

A friend of Kaye’s said over the weekend that the woman was shot while protecting Goldstein from the gunfire. The rabbi said he could not say if that was the case, but said Kaye “took the bullet for all of us.”

He said he had just been speaking to Kaye when the shooting started late Saturday morning.

“I walked into the banquet hall to wash my hands, and I walked two, three footsteps when I hear a loud bang,” Goldstein said.

He said he turned around to come face-to-face with the shooter — later identified by authorities as 19-year-old John Earnest of Rancho Penasquitos, a student at California State University San Marcos — but could not make eye contact because the gunman was wearing sunglasses.

“I couldn’t see his eyes,” Goldstein said. “I couldn’t see his soul.”

After the shooter’s gun “miraculously” jammed, he was chased out of the building by a Border Patrol agent who had recently “discovered his Jewish roots” and began making the three-hour drive from El Centro to attend services at the orthodox congregation, Goldstein told reporters.

Another worshipper, 34-year-old Almog Peretz, suffered a gunshot wound while shepherding children to safety. Peretz, an Israeli military veteran, was visiting the United States at the time of the shooting, according to Goldstein.

An 8-year-old girl was hit by shrapnel during the gun rampage. She and Peretz have been released from hospital care and are expected to recover.

The child’s father told Israel Radio that he had moved his family to California a number of years ago after their home absorbed several rocket shots from the Gaza Strip over the years, injuring him once.

“We came from fire to fire,” he said. “It can happen anywhere. (But) we are strong.”

The alleged shooter is being held without bail at San Diego Central Jail. He’s tentatively expected to appear in court Wednesday. He was booked on suspicion of one count of murder and three counts of attempted murder.

Though he allegedly shouted anti-Semitic slurs during the rampage, Earnest was not believed to be part of an organized hate group, according to law enforcement officials.

“We believe he acted alone and without outside support in carrying out the attack,” according to a county sheriff’s department statement. “We are continuing to explore every investigative avenue to bring out all the facts in the case.”

Earnest — reportedly on the Dean’s List at Cal State San Marcos — posted an “open letter” online shortly before the shooting, taking credit for both the Poway synagogue shooting and a suspected arson fire that damaged the Islamic Center of Escondido last month. The screed includes anti-Semitic references and racist comments, authorities said.

“We are dismayed and disheartened that the alleged shooter now in custody is a CSUSM student,” university President Karen Haynes said. “CSUSM is working collaboratively with the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department to assist and gain more information. We extend our deepest condolences to all of the victims, their families, friends and our entire community. We share your grief. … We stand in solidarity with the Jewish community and reject the rhetoric of divisiveness that feeds hatred.”

Deputies have served search warrants for Earnest’s home and car as well as the synagogue, the sheriff said.

Goldstein said he spoke to President Donald Trump by telephone and described the call as comforting.

The rabbi called on the Jewish community to show up to temple this weekend to show solidarity with the congregation and the shooting victims.

“This Friday night go to your synagogue,” Goldstein said. “We need to fill up this room. We need to show them that terrorism, evil, will never prevail.”

The family of the alleged shooter issued a statement decrying the deadly assault and asserting that Earnest was the responsible party.

“We are shocked and deeply saddened by the terrible attack on the Chabad of Poway synagogue,” they wrote. “But our sadness pales in comparison to the grief and anguish our son has caused for so many innocent people. He has killed and injured the faithful who were gathered in a sacred place on a sacred day. To our great shame, he is now part of the history of evil that has been perpetrated on Jewish people for centuries.”

The family added that Earnest’s apparent hateful attitudes had been “informed by people we do not know and ideas we do not hold. ”

“Like our other five children, he was raised in a family, a faith and a community that all rejected hate and taught that love must be the motive for everything we do,” they stated. “How our son was attracted to such darkness is a terrifying mystery to us, though we are confident that law enforcement will uncover many details of the path that he took to this evil and despicable act.”

–City News Service