They came to the Orthodox synagogue in a quiet Southern California suburb to celebrate one of the most important Jewish holidays of the year and to say prayers to honour the dead.
But that peace was shattered Saturday when a teenage gunman reportedly uttering anti-Semitic epithets unleashed a hail of bullets in an attack that left a 60-year-old mother dead, the synagogue’s rabbi in surgery, and an eight-year-old girl and her uncle in hospital.
The shooting at Chabad of Poway, 40 kilometres north of San Diego, is the latest in a string of violent incidents targeting synagogues, mosques and churches that has left places of worship on high alert and sparked renewed fears of rising extremism fuelled by the spread of white-supremacist hate speech online.
The attack came during the final days of Passover and exactly six months after 11 people were killed in a shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue. It follows a spate of deadly attacks on places of worship in New Zealand and Sri Lanka.
Police arrested a 19-year-old man shortly after the shooting. San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore said police found an “AR-style” assault rifle in the suspect’s car. Police are also looking into claims the alleged shooter was involved in an attempted arson at a mosque in nearby Escondido, Calif., a month earlier and that he planned to livestream the synagogue shooting on Facebook. The alleged shooter’s manifesto praised the attacks in New Zealand and Pittsburgh.
Facebook said it had disabled an account listed in the manifesto because it was fake. The social-media firm said it was working with law enforcement and did not find any video of the shooting.
U.S. President Donald Trump offered his condolences to the victims on Saturday and told reporters the shooting “looks like a hate crime.” He called it “hard to believe,” echoing statements he made in the wake of the deadly shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in October, which he called “hard to believe, and frankly, something that is unimaginable.”
Members of the Tree of Life, the site of the deadliest attack on Jews in American history, held a vigil in Pittsburgh for the California synagogue on Sunday. “We know first-hand the fear, anguish and healing process such an atrocity causes,” the temple said in a statement. “These senseless acts of violence and prejudice must end. Enough is enough!”
Jonathan Greenblatt, chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a statement that the shooting was “a reminder of the enduring virulence of anti-Semitism. It must serve as a call to action for us as a society to deal once and for all with this hate.”
The attack drew widespread condemnation from across the globe. Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu described the shooting as “a blow to the heart of the Jewish people” and said he would convene a summit on anti-Semitism later this week. Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders said he would increase patrols around the city’s places of worship in the wake of the shooting.
Experts in hate crimes noted that anti-Semitic hate has shifted in recent years from vandalism of synagogues and harassment of Jews to outright acts of violence.
“In my living memory, and I’ve been working on this for over three decades, I don’t recall a time when we have seen, in North America specifically, neo-Nazis and white supremacists walk into places of worship and gun down innocent people,” said Bernie Farber, former CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress, who now leads the Canadian Anti-Hate Network.
He warned that the shooting is likely to inspire more attacks on places of worship and blamed Mr. Trump for not doing more to condemn instances of white nationalist violence.
Police have charged John T. Earnest, a nursing student at California State University San Marcos, with one count of first-degree murder and three counts of attempted murder.
Investigators said they were examining Mr. Earnest’s social-media posts, along with a lengthy manifesto filled with anti-Semitic diatribes posted under his name hours before the shooting on 8chan, an online message board frequented by white supremacists.
Friends of the shooting victim identified her as Lori Gilbert-Kaye and said she had gone to the synagogue on Saturday to say Kaddish, a Jewish prayer for the dead, for her mother who had recently died.
Witnesses said Ms. Gilbert-Kaye threw herself in front of Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein to protect him from the shooter. “Your final good deed was taking the bullets for Rabbi Mendel Goldstein to save his life,” Audrey Jacobs, who identified herself as a friend of Ms. Gilbert-Kaye, wrote on Facebook.
Rabbi Goldstein, 57, was shot in the hand. “I was face to face with this murderer, terrorist, who was holding a rifle and looking straight at me,” he told NBC’s Today on Sunday. “As soon as he saw me, he started to shoot toward me. My fingers got blown away.”
Members of the congregation identified the two other victims as Almog Peretz, 34, and his eight-year-old niece Noya Dahan. They said Noya’s family had moved to San Diego from the Israeli city of Sderot near the Gaza Strip to get away from constant violence. Mr. Peretz, who was visiting from Israel, ushered children to safety on a playground before he was shot, witnesses said. Both were recovering in hospital.
Police on Sunday did not say whether the gun used in the attack was legal or how the shooter came to own the firearm.
California has some of the country’s toughest gun laws, including restrictions on gun ownership by anyone under 21 years old and a ban on military-style assault rifles. Mandatory background checks for ammunition sales are set to start in July.