What’s Changed Since the Poway Synagogue Shooting?

By | Apr 27, 2022
Deep Dives, Jewish World, Latest
The outside of the Chabad of Poway synagogue in California where a shooting took place

Three years ago today, a gunman entered the Chabad of Poway synagogue in California and fired on the congregation. Lori Gilbert-Kaye, 60, who had moved to shield the rabbi from the bullets, was killed. The rabbi, Yisroel Goldstein, then 57, and two others—Almog Peretz, 34, and his 8-year-old niece, Noya Dahan—sustained non-fatal injuries. 

It was the morning of Shabbat, and the last day of Passover. It was just six months after the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, which claimed 11 victims—the deadliest antisemitic attack in U.S. history. By the end of 2019, antisemitic incidents had hit an all-time high nationwide, with more than 2,100 acts of assault and harassment reported, according to the Anti-Defamation League

In the years since, the numbers have remained high. In 2020, they declined only 4 percent, according to another ADL report released on the Poway attack’s two-year anniversary. In 2021, they reached yet another all-time high, with more than 2,700 incidents. And then earlier this year, on January 15, 2022, an attacker targeted another American synagogue, holding four people hostage at a congregation in Colleyville, Texas. 

While the Poway attack lasted only minutes, the consequences it set in motion will never truly come to an end. It takes time for a fractured community to heal from a tragedy—and for the justice system to make sense of it, as lawsuits and criminal trials drag on for months or years. To mark the attack’s three-year anniversary, here are a few of the biggest developments that have taken place since:

The shooter received two life sentences.

After John Timothy Earnest, then 19, fled the scene, he called 911 and told the operator that he “just shot up a synagogue.” He was quickly apprehended. 

For the next two years Earnest waited in prison. He faced more than 100 state and federal charges—which also included an unrelated arson at a nearby mosque—and life in prison seemed a certainty. But at both the state and federal levels, the courts had a decision to make: whether to pursue the death penalty.

State prosecutors ultimately accepted a plea deal, deciding not to pursue the death penalty “after consulting with the Kaye family and the many victims impacted by the shooting,” the San Diego County District Attorney’s office explained in a statement. On September 30, 2021, a California state court sentenced Earnest, then 22, to life in prison without parole, plus 137 years. 

On December 28, 2021, Earnest received a second life sentence, plus 30 years, in federal court, which also had opted against pursuing the death penalty. As a symbolic gesture, the two life sentences will run one after the other. Additionally, Earnest’s request to stay in state prison rather than federal prison was denied. “Obviously,” said U.S. District Judge Anthony Battaglia, “this is as serious as it gets.”

We learned more about the antisemitism behind Earnest’s actions.

Hours before the shooting, Earnest uploaded an antisemitic manifesto on 8chan, an online message board known for extremist ideologies. “My name is John Earnest and I am a man of European ancestry,” he began, before going on to boast about the upcoming attack.

The manifesto is a truly bizarre document, mixing references to memes and internet culture with centuries-old antisemitic tropes. Earnest referred to “Simon of Trent,” who was a two-year-old Christian boy who died in the Italian city of Trent in 1475. Rumors spread that Jews had killed the boy as part of a ritual murder, in order to use his blood to make Passover matzah. Eight Jews were accused of Simon’s murder and subsequently killed. 

These kinds of false accusations—that Jews murdered Christian children and used their blood for religious rituals—are now called “blood libel.” Throughout history, blood libel accusations have been levied against Jews countless times. Simon of Trent’s supposed story was simply the example Earnest chose to invoke. 

But Earnest’s accusations against today’s Jews are drawn from a different set of conspiracy theories: that they are attempting to eradicate the white race through interracial marriage, assimilation and immigration—a white supremacist conspiracy theory sometimes referred to as “white genocide.” 

Perhaps the best analysis comes from Talia Lavin, author of Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy, who wrote about the manifesto for The Washington Post. Lavin says that it’s easy to see Earnest’s terrible crimes, and particularly the way he boasted about them on the internet, as “a profoundly modern phenomenon.” But ultimately, Earnest’s manifesto is “not all that different from the bishop of Trent commissioning poems to create the myth of a martyred saint and ordering Jews burned at the stake. The goals are the same: to cast Jews—each individual Jew, and Jews as a whole—as the driving force of the world’s evils and to build, on their corpses, a world cleansed of sin.” 

Survivors filed a lawsuit against the gun manufacturer.

How did such a weapon—a semiautomatic rifle similar to the AR-15—get into the hands of a 19-year-old? In June 2020, a group of survivors and their families from the synagogue filed a lawsuit against Smith & Wesson, the company that manufactured the gun, as well as San Diego Guns, the store that sold it to him.

The lawsuit focused on how Smith & Wesson marketed the weapon. Even though the gun is primarily used by civilians, the company created video game-style commercials that suggested a connection to the military, appealing to “young men with military complexes,” per Reuters. The plaintiffs argued that Smith & Wesson acted negligently, despite knowing that people in their targeted demographic “are highly susceptible to that type of advertising and have disproportionately perpetrated mass shooting using similar firearms.”

Separately, Earnest, who was 19 when he bought the gun, was not legally eligible to purchase it in the first place—which is why San Diego Guns is also a defendant in the lawsuit. In California, the minimum age for buying a long gun is 21. Younger Californians are exempt from this requirement if they have a valid hunting license—which Earnest did not have. 

Initially, Smith & Wesson tried to get the lawsuit dismissed by citing a 2005 law—the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act—that “shields gunmakers from litigation when the weapons they produce are used in criminal acts,” The Washington Post explains. “It does not, however, apply in cases of negligence or deliberate violations of state laws.” In July 2021, a San Diego judge ruled that the lawsuit can proceed.

In an unrelated scandal, the congregation’s rabbi was sentenced to 14 months in prison for financial fraud.

After the shooter fled the scene, but before the ambulances arrived, Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein rallied his congregation with a speech about the resiliency of the Jewish people. In the following days and weeks, he became a nationally renowned voice against antisemitism. He spoke at the United Nations, he met with President Donald Trump and he published an opinion piece in The New York Times. “I do not know God’s plan,” he wrote. “All I can do is try to find meaning in what has happened.”

But at the time, unbeknownst to the congregation, Goldstein was already under investigation for decades-long financial fraud. His actions became public in 2020, when he and five associates pleaded guilty in federal court. And for the Poway congregation, finding meaning amid tragedy became, perhaps, even more challenging. 

Goldstein founded the Poway synagogue in the 1980s, and his fraudulent activities started around the same time. Per The Forward, most of his crimes followed the same script: Someone would donate a large sum of money to the synagogue and write it off in their taxes. Then, Goldstein would secretly refund the donation, and the donor would give Goldstein 10 percent of the fraudulent deduction. Goldstein conducted these frauds, known as “90-10 schemes,” for decades. He collected at least $6.2 million in fake donations, keeping more than half a million for himself. 

Other fraud schemes involved applying for grants on behalf of the synagogue but keeping the money for himself and his associates. These frauds have particularly rattled the Poway congregation, because some of those grants were intended for security upgrades. If Goldstein had used the security grants, some congregants wonder, would the shooter have been stopped sooner? Another point of tension: While Goldstein stepped down at the end of 2019, he was replaced by his son, Mendel. Since then, as many as half the synagogue’s families have left, according to The Forward. “You’re trying to overcome and get past the tragedy, and the place you look at as a sanctuary, it’s not a sanctuary,” said Oscar Stewart, one of the congregants who left.

This January, Goldstein was sentenced to serve 14 months in prison and to pay $2,834,608 in restitution. “You dragged down so many congregants,” U.S. District Judge Cynthia A. Bashant said at the sentencing. “It’s important to send a message to the community, and it’s important to send a message to you.” 

Also in the courtroom was Hannah Kaye, 24, who was in the synagogue when her mother, Lori Gilbert-Kaye, died in the attack. Kaye was among several congregants who wrote to the court advocating Goldstein receive a prison sentence. “I would like to express my gratitude to the court and to the justice system for favoring a prison sentence and holding him to the highest standard that the law will permit in this case,” said Hannah Kaye, addressing the court shortly before sentencing. “We were bracing ourselves for a different result.”

It was the third sentencing Kaye had attended in a matter of months; she had spoken at Earnest’s state and federal sentencings just weeks before. 

We learned critical lessons about security.

The Poway and Pittsburgh shootings shook synagogues across the country—and in some ways they served as a wakeup call. In their aftermath, many synagogue leaders began tightening security and seeking out training sessions.

One of those leaders was Charlie Cytron-Walker, the rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. This January, when a gunman held him and three congregants hostage for 11 hours, the rabbi was at an advantage: He had trained for this kind of attack. 

In fact, he had completed four security trainings—from the Colleyville Police Department, the F.B.I., the Anti-Defamation League and the Secure Community Network, according to The New York Times. Another hostage, Jeffrey Cohen, had also undergone training from the Secure Community Network, a nonprofit that supports security at American synagogues. Both men have said that the sessions ultimately helped them escape unharmed.

This story is part of a series called Deep Dives, which looks at antisemitic incidences reported in the media and Moment’s Antisemitism Monitor in order to explore their long-term consequences and provide perspective.

Top image: Chabad of Poway.

One thought on “What’s Changed Since the Poway Synagogue Shooting?

  1. hag says:

    More and more stories on anti-semitism, but yet our political organization AIPAC is funding Politicians who back the Enabler in Chief… our millionaires are depositing money to share a cheeseburger with this man… remember the State of the Union message… Who gave the response, Marjory…of the jewish lasers..

    So how can you complain of anti-semitism…when we are PAYING for it..

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.