When a gunman attacked the Chabad center in Poway, Calif., during Shabbat morning services, Rabbi Hirshy Minkowicz was an hour and half drive away, at the Chabad center in Los Alamitos, where his brother-in-law is the rabbi.
Minkowicz, the director of Chabad of North Fulton, had not one, but two personal connections to Saturday’s tragedy.
Minkowicz grew up in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, where his classmates included one of the brothers of Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, the rabbi wounded at Chabad of Poway.
“I spent a lot of time growing up in that house. We used to have playdates all the time,” Minkowicz said, speaking to the AJT from California. Two of Goldstein’s brothers have homes adjacent to Minkowicz’s parents in Crown Heights. “I know his family really well.”
The Poway shootings happened at 11:30 a.m. local time Saturday, as worshippers marked the last day of Passover. It was exactly six months from the Oct. 27, 2018, massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, in which a gunman killed 11 worshippers and wounded seven.
Killed at Poway was 60-year-old Lori Gilbert-Kaye, a founding member of the Chabad center, which opened in 1986. In addition to Goldstein, who had an index finger ripped away when shot at close range, the wounded were Almog Peretz, 34, who was visiting from Sderot, Israel, and his 8-year-old niece, Noya Dahan.
The alleged gunman, 19-year-old John Earnest, fled when his semi-automatic rifle jammed and he was fired on by an off-duty border patrol agent, who had discovered his Jewish roots and worships at Chabad of Poway. Earnest later surrendered to police. In an online posting, he evinced virulently anti-Semitic sentiments, professed allegiance to white supremacist philosophy, and declared that he did not suffer from any mental health defect.
Minkowicz was visiting California with his eight children. His wife and their mother, Rashi Minkowicz, passed away in 2014 at age 37. [Minkowicz recently announced his engagement to Devora Leah Popack of Denver, Colo.]
Minkowicz’s second connection to Chabad of Poway is through the brother-in-law he was visiting, Rabbi Shmuel Marcus, whose wife, Bluma, is the sister of Minkowicz’s late wife.
Marcus’ sister, also named Bluma, is married to Rabbi Mendy Rubenfeld, a member of the Chabad of Poway staff. The Rubenfelds, who operate the center’s Hebrew school, were away for the holiday.
A police officer entered the Los Alamitos Chabad center and informed Marcus that there had been people shot at Poway. Because there were numerous children present, the two rabbis maintained a calm demeanor while “freaking out” on the inside, Minkowicz said.
The police officer remained for more than an hour, providing updates as he read them on his phone.
“The reality is that Judaism is based on a pillar of brotherly love,” Minkowicz said. “This was in a Chabad center, but in Chabad theology, our foundation is based on brotherly love. If it was a Jew that was attacked, I felt the same pain as when I heard about Tree of Life.”
In response to the shootings at Poway, “We just try our best to provide the family comfort and mourning, and keep our heads up and move forward,” the latter including reviewing synagogue security measures, he said.
Eric Robbins, the chief executive of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, was worshipping at Congregation Shearith Israel when he learned of the massacre at the Tree of Life, in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of his youth.
On Sunday, the day after the Poway shootings, Robbins went to the Chabad Intown center close to his home.
“Praying the morning prayers with Rabbi Eliyahu Schusterman was comforting as we share in the tragic loss we face as a community,” Robbins said in a Facebook post.
“It was the only thing I felt that I could do,” he told the AJT. “We are all family, when we have a loss, we get together and comfort each other. That is what we do.
“It was like salt on an open wound. I am deeply disturbed by the madness towards our community and other faith communities. I am rigorously working with clergy and leaders across our community to help our community respond and begin to heal from this tragic event,” Robbins said.
Schusterman, on Facebook, said, “Responding to hate and darkness the Chabad way! Do a mitzvah today, bring a bit more light into our world. A little bit of light pushes away a lot darkness.”
Dov Wilker, director of the American Jewish Committee regional office in Atlanta, also issued a statement. “AJC is deeply saddened by yesterday’s attack on the Chabad of Poway. We are fortunate to live in such a strong city that supports the Jewish community. We hope that our political leadership will use this as an opportunity for good by using the [congressional] Bipartisan Task Force for Combatting Anti-Semitism to educate about how anti-Semitism is effecting the world today,” Wilker said.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta Sunday night issued a statement on behalf of the Southeast regional office of the Anti-Defamation League, the Atlanta office of the American Jewish Committee, the Atlanta Rabbinical Association, Chabad of Georgia, and the Atlanta Jewish Community Relations Council.
“It was an attack on all people of faith and Federation appreciates the many statements of solidarity and condolence that have come to us from Christians, Muslims and other faith communities in Atlanta,” the statement said.
“Since the events in Poway, Cathal Lucy, our Director of Community-Wide Security, has been in constant contact with federal, state, and local law enforcement along with our Homeland Security partners. Currently, there is no information to suggest any threats to Jewish institutions in Atlanta. Nonetheless, out of an abundance of caution, many of our area communities and municipal law enforcement agencies have reached out and tell us they’ve increased patrols and presence in and around the Atlanta Jewish community and facilities.”
Looking ahead, “We encourage everyone to attend services this coming Shabbat, as Jewish Atlanta comes together in a Solidarity Shabbat.”