Los Angeles, San Diego newspaper staffs combine forces to cover Poway synagogue shooting

Another weekend, another religious worship shooting. Last week, it was suicide bombers killing 290 people celebrating Easter at church or eating breakfast at swank hotels in Sri Lanka; this weekend, it was one dead and three wounded at a San Diego-area synagogue that was observing the last day of Passover.

This latest attack in Poway, Calif., was obviously the major religion story this weekend. Houses of worship have become quite the fashion as killing fields these days and no group: Jews, Christians or Muslims, are immune.

The San Diego Union-Tribune had 13 stories about the shooting, including this haunting piece about the one fatality; a 60-year-old woman who stepped in front of the rabbi and literally took the bullet for him. What was she thinking when she did that? Unfortunately, a paywall would only let me read one piece.

The Los Angeles Times has covered mass shootings before and one of the reporters who covered the 2016 San Bernardino shootings covered this one, too. What both newspapers have in common is they lack a staff religion reporter, which would be of great help here, especially in noting important details like how this group of Jews does not believe in using electronics, such as smart phones, during the Sabbath.

That is why no one caught video of the shootings and why members of the synagogue would not have been spreading details by phone until Sabbath ended that evening.

But the Times made the wise decision to nab Jaweed Kaleem, formerly the senior religion reporter at the Huffington Post who now covers race issues for the Times, to lend his expertise. First, though, was the initial report out Saturday afternoon.

A gunman armed with a semiautomatic rifle walked into a suburban San Diego County synagogue and opened fire on the congregation Saturday, killing one person and injuring three in an attack that authorities believe was motivated by hate.

The gunman entered Chabad of Poway in the 16000 block of Chabad Way about 11:20 a.m. and started firing, authorities said. The 19-year-old suspect, identified as John T. Earnest, of Rancho Penasquitos, was arrested a short time later.

Earnest appears to have written a letter posted on the internet filled with anti-Semitic vitriol. The letter talks about planning for the attack.

“Four weeks ago, I decided I was doing this. Four weeks later, I did it.”

A more complete version, with nine reporters contributing from both the Times and the Union-Tribune, ran Sunday.

Naturally everyone wanted to know about the rabbi who narrowly escaped death.

The rabbi wounded in the shooting at a Poway synagogue Saturday said the bloodshed could have been much worse had the gunman’s weapon not jammed.

Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, speaking in an emotionally charged news conference Sunday in front of Chabad of Poway, described the attack, which left one woman dead and he and two other people wounded.

He said the gunman opened fire, fatally wounding longtime congregant Lori Kaye, 60, and blowing off one of the rabbi’s fingers. Both of his hands were in bandages Sunday.

Goldstein said he feared the gunman, armed with a semiautomatic rifle, would enter another room where a large group was gathered for a memorial service or go out to where a group of children were playing.

But “miraculously, the gun jammed,” he said. At that point, an off-duty Border Patrol agent gave chase and fired on the gunman as he sped away in his car.

Generally, the coverage was respectful of the Jewish faith and had a fair amount of details, considering that it was weekend staffs that were piecing this story together.

The question in a lot of peoples’ minds was what exactly was Chabad? That’s where Kaleem came in with a backgrounder.

Chabad-Lubavitch is a Hasidic Orthodox Jewish group that represents a small fraction of the more than 5 million Jews in the country. The organization with roots in 18th century Russia has been based in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, since the Holocaust. Its rabbis tend to wear tall hats with dark suits, keep long beards and adhere strictly to Jewish law.

But its influence outranks its size and the traditional faith of its leaders. That’s because Chabad rabbis have been sent forth to establish more than 1,000 religious centers in the U.S. and thousands more worldwide, focusing on reaching out to secular Jews and those living in places that would otherwise lack rabbis.

While the synagogue-attending Jewish population has decreased over the years along with other religious attendance in the U.S., Chabad houses — many of which are no-frills centers in homes or strip malls with small congregations of a few dozen — have continued to multiply. The movement today has more than 5,000 emissary families (usually a rabbi, spouse and children) serving in 100 countries. That includes every U.S. state and some 500 college campuses with Chabad centers.

Chabad, as former GetReligionista Mark Kellner has written, is the same branch of Judaism that was savagely attacked by Islamic terrorists in Mumbai in 2009.

Then there is a sidebar about the Army vet who spooked the shooter into fleeing the synagogue (thereby not killing any more people).

Oscar Stewart was focused on the comforting rhythm of the Torah reading when pops of gunfire cut through the sanctuary.

Stewart watched fellow congregants of Poway Chabad jump to their feet and run toward the exits as if in slow motion, away from the violence unfolding in the lobby on Saturday morning, the last day of Passover.

The 51-year-old Army veteran began to follow them. And then, in a split-second decision, he turned around.

Stewart doesn’t know why. In retrospect, the Orthodox Jew thinks it might have been the “hand of God.”

So again, lots of respectful treatment of faith issues here. And do listen to the rabbi’s press conference in the above video. He was speaking with both arms bandaged — and several missing fingers. It is truly worth your time to listen to this.

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