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The familiar pain of Poway

Lori Gilbert-Kaye, shot dead in a San Diego synagogue, was stolen from a world that still needed her effervescence and her acts of kindness
Lori Gilbert-Kaye
Lori Gilbert-Kaye

When you make aliyah, life splits like a sea into there and here, into before and after.

Sometimes the there and here meet gently, beautifully, like at your daughters’ bat mitzvah celebrations, where best friends from before come to dance and kvell with you, or on holidays when family gets on a plane to makes a pilgrimage with you to the Kotel and to Crave and you laugh and reminiscence about old times and catch up on what is happening in before, rolling waves of love and memories that pull your heart like a tide.

But sometimes, the two worlds collide and crash, hate and loss and pain churning and mixing in ways you never want or expect.

My entire before is in Southern California. We made aliyah from the San Diego area, known for gorgeous coves and beaches littered with sunbathing sea lions, world famous zoos and killer whales and Legoland. My husband and I always say, only half-joking, that we get extra credit for leaving such a beautiful place and making aliyah.

While we worried about crime there, we didn’t spend much time on terrorism. Occasionally, we were forced to think about it, like when we learned some of the 9/11 terrorists trained at the small airfield right across from our kids’ Jewish day school or when our children would go through drills covering what to do if there was a school shooter, but it didn’t touch our consciousnesses daily like it does in Israel.

When Shabbat/Passover break ended here in Israel last night, my biggest worry was my kids’ simultaneous clamoring for pizza or pasta and groaning as they realized school was starting tomorrow and that neglected backpacks and homework could no longer be ignored.

But then I received a WhatsApp saying there was a shooter at the Chabad of Poway in the San Diego area, and that there were a number of injures.

When we lived there, we didn’t get to Poway often, but the observant world in San Diego is this-small, and Poway has one of the more established Chabad satellites in the area. Very dear friends have a beautiful home out there, and when we would do the half-hour (without traffic) or more shlep out there for a Thanksgiving dinner or graduation party, we felt like we had traveled to the country. You didn’t know if it would smell like orange blossoms or horses when you would get off the highway, pass the Chabad shul and meander through the little windy country roads and charming ranch-type houses, but it always felt quiet, tranquil, safe.

With one WhatsApp, that illusion shattered.

My first thoughts rushed to my friends: Were they home for the holiday? If they were, they would have been at the Poway Chabad, but I couldn’t call or contact them because it was still Shabbat and Passover there. I tried to find out from local family and friends where they were, to know avail. I didn’t know until I woke up after a restless night that they were okay.

But Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, whom I’d see at various community events over the years, was shot in his hand right after reciting the “netilat yadayim” blessing, the prayer for hand washing, and he covered his wound with a prayer shawl and still tried to help his scared and injured congregants. Two Israelis, a little girl named Noya Dahan whose family relocated from Sderot to escape a rocket-riddled life, and her visiting uncle from Sderot, were both wounded. Information is emerging that the uncle, Almog Peretz, acted heroically to save children along with another Israeli.

And the vibrant, vivacious Lori Gilbert-Kaye hy”d was shot in close range trying to protect others, stolen from a family and a world who still needed her effervescence, her love and her acts of kindness. We were class moms together when her daughter and my oldest son were in middle school, and I remember planning fundraisers and graduation with her. She was always willing to help, to volunteer, to give, all with her winning-smile and inimitable sense of style and class.

This latest act of terrorism so close to my old home pulls me back in time to the beginning of the Jewish year, when Ari Fuld h”yd from my Israeli neighborhood, father of my daughter’s friend, was murdered, heroically saving a woman before he succumbed to his stab wounds. Back then, my Facebook feed was filled with my Israel community going through the shock and anger and sadness of losing one of our own. It feels surreal to watch it now with my San Diego family, and my heart aches and my arms cannot reach far enough to embrace, comfort or console.

My feed is now flooded with pictures of Lori, a face that I had not seen in years, and I grieve with the friends who were close to Lori: The ones who received a thoughtful message from her right before the holiday that they can’t stop playing, the ones who volunteered with her for the Friendship Circle to help kids with special needs, the ones who carpooled with her and shared life events and secrets and the gift of friendship. And then, her I cry for her husband and daughter, the life they knew eroded unnaturally and too quickly by the rising tide of antisemitism. The bewilderment and pain my San Diego friends are experiencing are raw, too real, and too familiar. 

How can I have two children whose friends lost parents to terrorism this year, one loss there and one here?

And how, how, how did we have Pittsburgh and the killings of seven other Israelis and who knows how many other acts of antisemitism take place around the world in between?

My worlds collided today, all too painfully. And unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like that will end anytime soon, with antisemitism growing bloated and bolder, worming its way across the world, from the left and the right, in our cartoons and through our leaders, on our campuses and on the internet, covertly and unapologetically.  

Once again, the truth washes over us: If it can happen in sweet, sleepy country-like Poway, it can happen anywhere.

About the Author
Jessica Levine Kupferberg is a writer and former litigation attorney. She made aliyah from La Jolla, California with her family during Operation Protective Edge in July 2014 after driving across America. She blogs for the Times of Israel and her work has appeared in Kveller.com, The Jewish Journal, The Forward, Jweekly, aish.com and as part of Project 929 English.
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