Friday, May 29, 2020

Rabbi Avi Weiss and his daughter Dena Mark, with 8-year-old Noya, who was injured in the Poway shooting.

Standing in the courtyard of the Poway Chabad, hundreds of people formed concentric circles, arms around each other, singing Shalom Aleichem. The very place where a week earlier Lori Kaye had been murdered and three others injured only because they were Jews had been transformed – the spirit of Shabbat, the spirit of peace, had prevailed. As I held my daughter Dena’s hands – who had come with me to express solidarity with the Poway Chabad – the Eshet Chayil was dedicated to Lori. Lori was not there, and yet, she was present.

A few hours earlier, Dena and I had gone to pay a shiva visit to Lori’s family. We sat alone with Howard, Lori’s bereaved husband. His eyes glistened with tears as he spoke of Lori’s endless capacity to give, and the need to respond to her death with Torah – “only with more Torah study will we prevail.”

Howard’s daughter Hannah, a student at UCLA, was having an especially difficult time. When the attack occurred, Howard, a physician, rushed to help the victim. When he realized it was his wife, he fainted. Seeing her parents lie on the floor, Hannah may have believed they were both gone.

We called Yisrael and Eden, father and mother of Noya, the 8-year-old who was injured. Enthusiastically they insisted we visit. Noya seemed fine, a light mark near her eye from her shrapnel wound seemed to have healed. Still, an inch or two to either side and Noya could have suffered serious injury.

Almog, Eden’s brother, Noya’s uncle, was there as well. Shrapnel penetrated one of his legs. Several times he simulated the killer pointing the gun directly at him.  “All I can see these days is the barrel of that gun,” he said.  And yet, Almog didn’t freeze. Heroically he saved many children by quickly rushing them away from the attacker.

On Friday night the synagogue was packed. I wondered how Rabbi Goldstein – the Poway Chabad rabbi who had inspired hearts and souls everywhere – would begin the service. Standing at the pulpit, he thrust his bandaged hands upwards – some of his fingers had been blown off – and passionately called out, “Shabbat Shalom.” “Am Yisrael Chai.” We repeated his words. In that instant the rabbi set the tone: in the midst of mourning, remain optimistic.

As cantors Shlomie and Fitz Rabin, led us in “Boi Ve’Shalom,” memories of singing that song solemnly in Pittsburgh as Joyce Fienberg’s coffin – one of the 11 murdered there – was placed in the hearse, crossed my mind. As with Joyce, I thought of Lori as the bride being greeted by God, the Dodi, the beloved. But, this time Boi Ve’Shalom was sung to an upbeat melody:  hundreds joined in enthusiastic dance.

Four hundred people joined for Shabbat dinner – Chabad style. At the meal, Peter Yarrow of the famous Peter, Paul & Mary trio led the crowd in “Blowin’ in the Wind.” As we left shul, we spoke with the San Diego police, who were guarding the synagogue. We were fortunate, they explained: the killer had bought the gun a day earlier, and didn’t really know how to use it. He didn’t have the right ammunition to reload.

Shabbat morning services were riveting. What stands out for me was when the ark was opened to take out the Torah. Rabbi Goldstein, in Rav Levi Yitzchak Berdichev style, dialogued publicly with God. “Ribbono shel olam,” he cried out, and the words flowed. Unscripted, it came from the heart. “I don’t ask why,” he said, “but until when? When will this stop. You, God,” the rabbi went on, “understand the unfathomable. I only ask that You give us the strength to continue on.”

At Kiddush after services, Rabbi Goldstein publicly announced that in the wake of the tragedy, he, with his wife, would be seeking therapy. He encouraged others to do the same. A courageous announcement, as rabbis are not prone to admit they need help. In doing so, Rabbi Goldstein displayed great strength.

We spent most of Shabbat afternoon with Yisrael, Eden, Noya and Almog. Noya, the young girl injured, is one of five children. Dena reminded me that we must give attention to all of them, especially Noya’s older sister, who just recently overcame a serious illness.

Yisrael and Almog are strong lovers of Israel. Living in Sderot for many years, they knew what attacks on Jews are all about. Returning to their home after Shabbat to say goodbye, we recited Havdala together. The TV was blaring with news from Israel that rockets from Gaza had killed a man and injured many more.

We embraced Yisrael and Almog, promising to continue our friendship. Good things emerge from being present and showing care.

Flying back to New York, my mind focused on Rabbi Goldstein’s dialogue with God. “We’re close to the time when a week earlier the killer attacked,” he said.  “Let’s pause in silence to allow everyone, within their own hearts, to make a resolution to improve themselves.”

And then, at the very moment the attack occurred, he cried out, “Shema Yisrael.” We all repeated the Shema. It felt like the Neilah final service of Yom Kippur. With uncontrollable tears, he led his congregation in the blessing “Baruch Atah Hashem… she’asah li nes bamakom hazeh – Blessed are Thou O Lord who performed a miracle in this place.

The Poway Chabad joins a list too long of such recent attacks. Muslims in New Zealand, Christians in Sri Lanka and South Carolina, Sikhs in Wisconsin, Jews in Har Nof, Pittsburgh and now in San Diego. The death of a person is the death of a person, but when one is murdered only because of who he or she is, that is the death of the world, the end of civilization. We must feel as if a little piece of us died, and respond.

It’s easy to respond with hate. While killers must be stopped at all costs, the ultimate response is for each of us to assume responsibility by committing ourselves to bring light to the world.

The Psalmist writes “Those who sow with tears will reap with joyous song.” Chabad of Poway is living and teaching the chasidic understanding of this phrase: those who sow, sow in one breath with tearful, joyous song.

By Rabbi Avi Weiss


 Rabbi Avi Weiss is founding Rabbi of the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, Bronx, New York, and founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and Yeshivat Maharat rabbinical schools. He is a longtime activist for Jewish causes and human rights.

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