Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein was walking into the banquet hall at Chabad of Poway on Saturday when he heard a loud noise. He thought a table had toppled or that one of his congregants had fallen.
“I did not know what that was,” he said. But when he turned around, he immediately found out.
“I was face to face with this murder terrorist who was holding the rifle and looking straight at me,” he said.
The gunman did not say anything.
“As soon as he saw me, he started to shoot toward me and that is when I put my hands up,” Rabbi Goldstein said.
In an interview on the “Today” show on Sunday, Rabbi Goldstein recounted the harrowing moments when the gunman entered the synagogue in Poway, Calif., and opened fire with an A.R. 15-style gun.
“My fingers got blown away,” Rabbi Goldstein said. “I cannot erase that face from my mind.”
The shooting at Chabad of Poway was the most recent in a string of deadly attacks at houses of worship, including a mass shooting at a mosque in New Zealand in March that was live-streamed on Facebook and fatal bombings at churches in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday that killed more than 300 people.
The attack at Chabad of Poway happened six months to the day after one of the deadliest attacks against the American Jewish community killed 11 in a Pittsburgh synagogue.
The attack on Saturday left a 60-year-old woman dead, the rabbi wounded, and a 34-year-old man and a young girl with shrapnel wounds.
The shooting occurred while there were 40 to 60 people at the synagogue and on Saturday, which was the Sabbath and also the last day of Passover, a holiday that celebrates Jewish freedom.
Rabbi Goldstein and those injured were expected to recover but he said he will be scarred for life.
“I cannot erase the moment, and it is going to be embedded there forever,” he said.
After the gunman, identified by officials as John T. Earnest, 19, shot Rabbi Goldstein in his hand, he shot to death a woman the rabbi had known for 33 years and who had helped him build the synagogue.
Rabbi Goldstein said he immediately went into action.
“I turned around and I saw a group of children in the banquet hall, including my granddaughter, and I just ran, not even knowing that my fingers were blown off and curled all the kids together and got them outside and went into the sanctuary and got everyone out of the sanctuary to safety,” he said.
As they were waiting for the authorities to arrive, Rabbi Goldstein continued the sermon he had started inside the synagogue.
“I got up there and just spoke from my heart,” the rabbi said. “Just giving everyone the courage to know, it was just 70 years ago during the Holocaust we were gunned down like this, and I just want to let my fellow Americans know that we’re not going to let this happen.”
The authorities called the shooting a hate crime. The gunman was charged early on Sunday with one count of murder in the first degree and three counts of attempted murder. No bail was set.
“I’m just so heartbroken and saddened by the senseless killing,” Rabbi Goldstein said. “Everyone needs to be a hero and everyone needs to step up and do something in the face of terror,” he said.
He added: “I guarantee you, we will not be intimidated or deterred by terror. Terror will not win.”