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Poway synagogue shooting: Two congregations torn apart

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The Poway synagogue’s rabbi describes the “heart-wrenching” moment after one of his congregation members “took the bullet for all of us.”
USA TODAY

ESCONDIDO, Calif. – Two religious congregations about 12 miles apart – one Jewish and the other Christian – were bound by tragedy over the weekend.

One was a synagogue ripped apart by gunfire; the other was a church the suspected shooter’s family regularly attended. What both shared Sunday: an overwhelming sense of grief as worshippers grappled with trying to make sense of the senseless.

Their leaders, a rabbi and a pastor, did their best to show how they are rising above hate.

At the Chabad of Poway, orthodox Jews had gathered for Passover when a gunman burst in with a semi-automatic rifle Saturday and started shooting, killing a worshipper and wounding the rabbi and two others. 

More: Her ‘final good deed’: Woman hailed as hero after taking bullets to protect rabbi during synagogue shooting

The next morning at the Escondido Orthodox Presbyterian Church, also nestled in the picturesque rolling hills northeast of San Diego, the minister led the congregation in collective soul searching over how a 19-year-old, a member of one of their most respected families, could have allegedly carried out a crime so horrific, one that so flew in the face of the church’s values and teachings. 

At both congregations, the sense of horror was palpable. Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein encountered the “indescribable” sight of staring down the barrel of military-style rifle during a service in his own synagogue.  

“Here is a young man standing with a rifle, pointing right at me, and I look at him. He had sunglasses on. I couldn’t see his eyes. I couldn’t see his soul.”

More: Security boosted at mosques, synagogues after shooting; emotional rabbi lauds congregation’s bravery

Police say that young man was John T. Earnest, who lived with his parents while attending nearby California State University San Marcos. He had graduated from Mt. Carmel High School, where his father was a teacher, and he was accomplished at the piano and had participated on the swim team.
 
Yet for accomplishments that might make him seem otherwise well adjusted, Earnest struck many as being unusually reserved.

“I tried to talk to John several times, but he just never said anything, I think it’s not good if someone is as quiet as that,” longtime parishioner Gerrit Groenewold said at the Escondido church.

The pastor of the church, Zach Keele, was so disturbed by the shooting that he called a special session after the main service to talk about it frankly with the congregation. Most worshippers stayed, and they allowed a USA TODAY reporter to witness the moment.

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Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein says Lori Kaye, who was shot and killed in a synagogue near San Diego, died to protect others in the congregation. (April 29)
AP

Keele, in emotional tones, prayed for the victims and the police investigators. He decried the evil that had landed on the church’s doorstep. He offered prayers that the suspect’s soul “will be softened.”

He reached for consolation, finding little except that the suspect, in the manifesto police say he published that preceded the crime, didn’t blame his family for his apparent radicalization, saying it was based on writing he encountered online. 

More: 1 dead, 3 wounded in shooting at synagogue near San Diego

“There is no superior race. We are all created equal,” Keele said. And “we are committed to loving all people.”

Perhaps most difficult of all, he said he plans to “reach out and express my condolences to the synagogue.”

Keele is likely to find a receptive audience for the message from Rabbi Goldstein, who emerged Sunday after a hospital stay in which he lost a finger in the attack determined that the community would heal.

“Wow, wow, wow,” he said at a rally later Sunday attended by more than 1,000 people. “Look at the love. Look at the warmth. What happened to us, happened to all of us.”

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