“Commit to acts of kindness, and taking care of each other.”
Michael Jesse, San Diego Jewish Federation
April 30, 2019 (Poway) One of the things that a hate crime expect to create is terror. Communities under attack are supposed to hide in their homes, not attend houses of workshop, or schools, movie theaters, or other places. In other words, they are expected to hide and cower in fear.
However, this is not what happens generally speaking. Poway in particular and San Diego, in general, have not been an exception to the rule. The people have come together to a few Virgil’s to memorialize the victims, both living and death fo a senseless act. The weather was not precisely the best for this either. It was a cold April afternoon, with the sky threatening rain at any moment. The winds from the east were cold and biting. And for San Diegans, accustomed to the sun and fun, this was cold.
That did not stop people from coming, four thousand strong plus. By my count, the number likely reached close to the five thousand mark. They huddled with each other and visited with each other before the proper ceremony started. They came from nearby, and they also came from afar. Three hours on the bus and trolley is what it took Jeannie Columbus to get to this event. She came from South East San Diego to stand in solidarity, she is, and she made sure to tell me this a few times, a Vietnam War veteran, where she served as a nurse.
The event started with a minute of silence, not just for Lori Kaye, but also for all the victims of hate crimes. There was a moment that included the victims in New Zealand. Those of the Tree of Life, the Churches burned across the south, as well as Mother Emmanuel. The names of the perpetrators never entered anybody’s lips. The names of the victims and the places attacked did.
The crowd had people from all communities in the county. By that, I mean minorities and majorities, who came together to remember and to stand defiant against the hate. This event was also put up rather fast, and announced on Facebook in the morning. It had three thousand people by the time the event started, however, word of mouth led to close to five thousand. This is what a community standing together looks like. This we were told by a few of the speakers, including Poway Mayor Steve Vaus, who wore his trademark cowboy hat.
“Wow! Look at you! You are beautiful!” Then he exhorted the crowd to look around and take in the size of the crowd. They did. He then told them that within hours of the disaster, he got calls from all levels of government asking what he needed. He told them all that he did not. Local law enforcement (San Diego Sheriffs,) and his fire department were already on the job. And as the microphone failed, he reached for a second unit.
He then asked the crowd to recognize the firefighters. Earlier in the program, San Diego Sheriff Bill Gore, San Diego Police David Nisleit and FBI Agent in Charge Suzanne Turner had taken to the stage and were recognized with long applause. Vaus asked that fire personnel get the same recognition, and they did.
“I feel like my arms have gotten a few inches longer over the last twenty-four hours, or forty-eight hours, as I have been trying to wrap them around all of you. While I was trying to do that, I felt all of your arms trying to wrap around me. And to Chabad of Poway, and the K Family, you are an amazing community!”
Michael Jesse of Jewish Federation of San Diego addressed the crowd midway through the program. He has been in conversations with the Chabad Poway congregation since the event happened. This is a traumatic event, and the members of the congregation, who are involved in a faith that has deep power. “Despite the pain and the suffering many of us feel… God has a plan. We are going to be taken care off, we are going to be ok.” He also asked Rabbi Jonah Joseph, executive director of Chabad of Poway. The Rabbi shared some words of wisdom with the crowd. Some of it may be misplaced and I will explain this at the end.
Joseph said, “the strength of all of you here, and as stated this beautiful community. Hatred is something very distant from Poway; it is something very distant from San Diego. And most certainly it is also very distant from the world.”
He went on to tell that if “each and every one of us can reach to someone who has that hatred” we can start to change things. “It starts from one person being nice to another person.” This will help to create a community.
And this is essential in the response to these events. Resilient communities will do this. They will reach to each other.
Chabad started after the Holocaust. It was not a response to the senseless murder of six million Jews (and seven million gentiles) by pulling away from the world. It was a fully participatory movement, which also has a series of public services. In the midst of this tragedy, the Rabi said to reach them if anybody needs help. In Judaism this is called Tikum Olam, to heal the world. This is a core mission, as well as the doing of good deeds to the world, and each other.
There were moments when people were told that anger was normal. The community was violated. But doing simple things like hugging each other, coming out to this event, and helping each other is important. They were also reminded of the heavy toll that these events can take, and Jewish Family Services is still doing counseling.
However, there was a dark moment. Synagogues in Europe these days are not places that are open. There is a deep fear that attacks could come again. One of the speakers wondered if we are coming to the end of an era. This is one where all places of worship are open, and there is no doubt that they are.
This led to conversations after the service. Are we at that moment? I know that we may very well be. The United States, so far, has been able to avoid that. But it is not just Europe where guards, sometimes armed, and metal detectors are part of life.
One of the most beautiful moments was at the end. Rabbi Scott Meltzer of Or Shalom invited all faith leaders from around the county to come to the front. It was easily fifty plus, Iman, embracing a Rabbi, Catholic priest sanding side by side an Episcopalian. A Sikh, wearing a traditional turban, side by side a Jew, wearing a kippah. They stood there, they sang and they were joined by fourth thousand voices.
It is a fitting way to show that the community will not be cowed and that all are together. This is the needed response to hatred, and yes, it is lurking in the shadows. It is time for it to go back to the shadows.
There was a deficiency in this program though. It may be by design or simply ignorance. Or perhaps, given that the Anti-defamation league organized this, it was more by design. Whenever we have an incident of this nature, no matter where in the country, we want to distance ourselves from the perpetrators. It is a defensive process, I will admit. However, the perpetrator, in this case, was a member of the community. He went to local schools, and he was a product of this city. Therefore, we need to confront this where we live.
Now, if there were no hate groups in San Diego, an argument could be made that he had an external influence. As we covered in the piece on the shooting, when authorities were asked that question, they gave a non-answer-answer. And the community itself is not in the process of facing the hate in their midst. California has the largest concentration of hate groups in the United States. We know this. And Southern California has more than a few. We also know that nationally these groups are growing.
We also have seen increasing participation of young people in groups like the Chans, or even Stormfront or Free Republic. The last one is actually mild compared to these other groups. There is also Breitbart and other media places. And while communities want to ignore this, they need to face to this reality. In this case, the statements from the Rabbi and political leaders would have been more understandable if the suspect came from Los Angeles, San Francisco, or even another state. However, he is from Rancho Penasquitos and went to Carmel High School, and was attending California State University San Marcos.
We also need officials to stop beating around the bushes. A Facebook user asked a very poignant question this morning. Why does it take a tragedy for law enforcement and political leaders to deal with this? We have had an increase of forty percent in hate crimes in the County according to District Attorney Summer Stephan, who was still debating whether to charge the suspect with a hate crime. For the moment he has been charged with one count of murder, three of attempted murder, and one of arson for the Muslim Center in Escondido. He pled not guilty and was denied bail.