Searching for Light After the San Diego Synagogue Shooting

By: Liran Braude

Last Saturday, I received a text message from a young, family friend in San Diego. My screen flashed, “URGENT! LOOK!” I grabbed my phone. There was an emergency alert:

“Multiple people gunned down at Poway synagogue.”

Anguish, dread, and despair took over me. I broke down crying.

The synagogue shooting in San Diego last weekend really hit close to home for me. San Diego is my home. The Jewish community there is my family.

My family moved to San Diego from South Africa seeking safety, security, and a better life. Ours is a familiar story in a community where so many South African, Mexican, and Israeli Jews have moved to escape crime and war. Indeed, one of the victims from the shooting, an 8-year old girl, is from a family that fled the Israeli border town of Sderot that sits adjacent to the Gaza Strip. They came to San Diego to escape the devastating rockets that have rained down on their town from Gaza for years. And, while they are often more established, many of the American Jews in San Diego come from families that fled and lost loved ones in the Holocaust a few generations ago. Suffice it to say, safety and security are vital to our community.

Before I came to Columbia, I worked at a Jewish civil rights organization in San Diego where I was responsible for the security of all of San Diego’s Jewish institutions and for all of our work pertaining to law enforcement, hate crimes, and counter-extremism. I worked intimately and painstakingly with every Jewish school, organization, and synagogue in San Diego to practice active shooter drills, improve their security protocols, investigate suspicious activity, and to ensure our community’s safety from the many dangers that threaten us. What happened on Saturday was my worst nightmare realized.

While many people have undoubtedly watched in alarm as a wave of anti-Semitic incidents has swept through America and the world in recent times, with the devastating Pittsburgh synagogue shooting happening just six months ago, I can tell you from personal experience that anti-Semitism is not new. But it is getting worse, and frighteningly so.

Ever since the FBI started tracking hate crimes in 1990, Jews - who constitute just 2% of the American population, but account for between 50-60% of religious-based hate crimes every year - have always been amongst the most targeted demographic groups in America. But the number of anti-Jewish incidents has been increasing for years now, rising from 647 incidents in 2014, to 730 in 2015, to 862 in 2016, and surging to a frightening 1016 incidents in 2017, and according to the ADL, now up to 1879 incidents in 2018.

Right here, in the diverse and populous New York City, there have been more hate crimes committed against the city’s Jewish minority over the past year than against all other groups of people combined. The first quarter of 2019 has already seen hate crimes against Jews soar by 82% compared to the same period last year. In the words of my former National Director, “the American Jewish community has not seen this level of anti-Semitism since the 1930s.” To me, it’s mind-blowing, it’s unthinkable, that more than 70 years after the Holocaust, the situation for Jews can be so dire in the United States of America, and even worse in Europe and elsewhere where soldiers and armed guards are needed to protect Jewish institutions.

It has been exhausting and frustrating to be a Jew in America in recent months and years. We are bombarded with seemingly endless stories of synagogue shootings in San Diego and Pittsburgh; or desecrations of Jewish cemeteries in Fall River and Philadelphia; or Swastikas and anti-Semitic graffiti targeting Jews right here at Columbia and at other universities; or the brazen assaults of visibly-Jewish people on the streets of New York; or even anti-Semitic New York Times cartoons and anti-Semitic statements made by our elected officials. We are so tired of it all. No matter how much our community has been raising the alarm about how dangerous anti-Semitism is getting, it has felt like our cries have been falling on deaf ears, and things only keep getting worse.

My beloved Jewish community in San Diego is in agony right now. We’re hurting. Lori Kaye, a wonderful Jewish matriarch of our community, was murdered and taken from her family, her community, and this world far too soon because of anti-Semitism and blind hatred. She was a hero who sacrificed herself to save the rabbi and her congregation. In the heart-breaking and emotional eulogy that Lori’s 22-year old daughter gave at her mother’s funeral, she told of how her mother believed in “radical empathy,” and how she would have already forgiven her killer. The tributes to Lori that poured in from friends throughout our community were a further testament to what a special person she was. Her loss can never be healed.

But we know that this darkness, this intolerance, does not only impact Jews. African-Americans, Muslims, Christians, the LGBTQ+ community, Latinos, immigrants, school children…intolerance and blind hatred are increasingly affecting us all. It’s important that we recognize that it takes a village, it takes all of us, to heal our society and make it tolerant. While we don’t have too much control over what happens in the world at large, we do have a degree of control over how we engage with the world immediately around us.

We should all make a conscious effort to “reach across the aisle” and learn more about the people whom we know the least, and whom we fear or disagree with the most, in order to dispel myths, build relationships, and heal our divides. And as studies show that memory of the Holocaust is fading from our collective memory, we should all endeavor to take a trip to our local Holocaust museum, listen to survivor testimonies, and watch documentaries in order to help make sure that the important lessons of the Holocaust are not forgotten during these times of once-again rising intolerance.

In our Jewish faith, we believe in finding light in times of darkness. A revered Chabad rabbi would always say how, even in the darkest of places, light from a single candle can be seen from far away. One candle can also light another, and, in so doing, help to spread light in the world.

It is up to each of us, through our actions and our words, to be a light of empathy and humanity in these dark times and to help spark that light in others. May Lori Kaye’s memory forever be a blessing and inspire the best in us all.