Rabbi, What Happened?!by Rabbi Yeruchem Eilfort June 6, 2019
The ‘fog of war’ is lifting and things are beginning to come into focus.
Last Saturday, which was the final day of Passover, a terrorist attacked Chabad of Poway. Mrs. Lori Kaye, a long-time member of the congregation, was murdered in cold blood by a 19-year-old nursing student. My colleague, Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, was wounded and lost his right index finger in the attack. Others were wounded by the flying bullets and shrapnel. Thank G-d all of the wounded were out of the hospital in less than 24 hours.
The gunman fled the scene and due to some outstanding police work was apprehended in short order. His new life behind bars is just beginning.
Why did the gunman flee? In the holiday crowd last Saturday there were two extraordinary gentlemen, Oscar Stewart and Jonathan Morales. Oscar is an Army and Navy veteran. Jonathan is a Border Patrol agent. When the killer stopped to reload, Oscar charged at him and screamed with what is being described as the “Thundering Voice of the Almighty!” He chased the shooter with his Tallis flying behind him like a cape or better yet, like the wings of angels. Meanwhile, Officer Morales acquired a weapon and began maneuvering to take down the criminal. The brave moves by these two surely saved countless lives.
Rabbi Goldstein was also busy despite being wounded and bleeding profusely. He told his terror-stricken people that “Am Yisroel Chai!” The Jewish people live! He continued, “We are strong, we are united, and we cannot be broken!” After making sure everyone was accounted for, Rabbi Goldstein allowed himself to be taken to the hospital where he underwent hours of surgery.
Since we got the word, which now seems like years ago instead of days ago, there has been a nonstop whirlwind of activity. I was tasked to help arrange the candlelight vigil at the park near Chabad of Poway, the memorial service the next day, and the funeral. We had to arrange enhanced security not only for our community but for the entire community–so we have been working with law enforcement and experts–and this work continues and will for the foreseeable future.
On Tuesday morning, before an important meeting with security experts, I was contacted by a longtime friend with political connections that I was being invited to the White House for the Thursday, National Day of Prayer ceremony. My friend asked if I wanted to go, and after thinking about it (for a nano-second) I said yes, I would like to go. On top of everything else I was working with I now had to plan for a trip to Washington DC.
The night before the trip, I spent some time with Rabbi Goldstein, and Rabbi Fradkin, Regional Director of Chabad of San Diego. It is hard to imagine the enormous emotional, physical, and even spiritual pain that Rabbi Goldstein is feeling–although one rarely hears him complain. Despite his wounds and trauma, he continues to march forward doing what needs to be done. Answering endless questions and giving 100% effort to move his community, and indeed the country, forward.
I watched Rabbi Fradkin work with determined energy and grace as he helped one of his Chabad House Communities pick up the pieces. Actually, he offers a kind word for anyone and everyone who needs it–carrying himself as the Emissary of the Rebbe that he is. He simultaneously and seamlessly comforts those in pain while building the future of Judaism in San Diego.
Wednesday afternoon we flew to Washington. It was already late when we checked into a hotel located right next to Chabad of Washington DC, where we prayed early the next morning. It so happens that the director, Rabbi Levi Shemtov is a classmate of mine from Yeshiva 35 years ago. Unfortunately we had very little time together so we couldn’t commiserate (too much). But in Chabad style he and his Rebbetzin lavished food and attention upon our group, as well as shepherding us through the maze of Washington streets and politics.
During the morning service, Rabbi Goldstein recited the ‘Gomel’ Prayer, which one says after safely making it through a dangerous situation. It was a brief, yet moving experience, that made me realize yet again how very blessed I am. After a quick breakfast, we had to dash to the White House. We were welcomed with open arms as the world’s greatest VIP’s; however, I fully realized (and still realize) that the accolades and attention are not for me, but for Rabbi Goldstein and the others who had been victimized. I tried to be mindfully present during my time there and mentally take in everything around me.
The White House grounds were immaculate, and everything looked beautiful. The soldiers from the different branches of the military, men and women of various races, all looked resplendent in their dress uniforms. In fact, I made it my mission to thank every service member I could find for his/her service. I told them, one and all, that we, the Jewish people, love, respect and honor them and their service to our nation. I did the same with the peace officers.
Before the ceremony began the President invited my colleague, Rabbi Goldstein, into the Oval Office. They had a 10 minute private conversation, but Rabbi Goldstein came out beaming. He said the President loves our people and wants to do everything in his power to make our people safe.
I was surrounded by clergy of all faiths and denominations, all races, male and female. Many of the Evangelical Christian community made a point of coming over to introduce themselves, express their condolences, and wish Rabbi Goldstein a complete recovery. There was a refrain in the air, “We love you!” “We are standing with you!” “G-d bless you!” It was extraordinary.
Vice President Mike Pence spoke briefly about the importance of faith in American history and how prayer and faith will always be important and indeed are the soul of the US, and the source of her blessings.
Then came the President and First Lady.
The President started to speak. He stated that he is determined to insure religious liberty in this country, which brought thunderous applause. He then changed gears and spoke about the need to eradicate anti-Semitism and hate. Then, out of the blue, he called up Rabbi Goldstein and asked him to speak. Rabbi Goldstein spoke from his heart. He said that the day after the attack he came home and was weeping due to the pain, the profound sense of loss, and his concern about his community. He then received a call from President Trump, who had called to offer his condolences and to try and offer comfort. Rabbi Goldstein stated that his healing began at that moment.
When he said those words I watched the President closely. He was deeply and emotionally touched by the Rabbi’s words! He was happy to have played a role in the healing process. Actually and truthfully, he has played a huge role and continues to do so.
Various faith community leaders offered prayers. The various styles were fascinating, yet there seemed to be a strong undercurrent of similar calls for the ultimate divine blessing, that of peace and brotherhood.
Following the ceremony we went into the West Wing where we drank some cold water and chatted a bit. After catching our breath and cooling down, Rabbi Goldstein went out to address the media. They shouted questions at him and Rabbi Shemtov was a champ in managing the questions and making sure everything stayed organized. Then it was time to leave.
Again Rabbi Shemtov rose to the occasion and organized a wonderful lunch for us at a
nearby Kosher restaurant that was buzzing with customers. We broke up into a couple of different rooms as some of us were talking to the press, other customers, friends, acquaintances etc etc. I was in a small private room with the heroes! I got to enjoy lunch with Oscar and Jonathan. And this may have been the greatest part of the whole trip. I am not sure if it has yet dawned upon them how heroic they both are and how they saved many lives because of their selfless bravery. They are two, unassuming gentlemen and were an absolute pleasure to share lunch with. Imagine–to have acted heroically and to not even know you are a true-blue hero!
Following lunch we headed back to the Chabad center, which had become our un-
official headquarters where we said our last goodbyes and headed off to the airport. I arrived late last night and fell into a deep, uninterrupted sleep (for the first time this week).
Today, we have been preparing feverishly for our Unity Shabbat services tomorrow at 10am. I am greatly looking forward to seeing my community, whom I adore and care deeply about, so we can recount what has happened, and bask in the warmth of our mutual love and respect!
In fact, that is how we will defeat the darkness. This trip has become emblematic of our life’s work. Fight the hate by bringing light into the world!
That is the theme of Shabbat!
In the words of Rabbi Goldstein, “We are strong! We are united! We will not be broken!”