As I entered Chabad House on that Tuesday evening following the shooting in Poway, California, I was greeted by an armed police officer. It was a reminder to me exactly why I was there and my heart was heavy with sadness. Could a light ever shine out of this tragedy, I wondered.
Once inside the mood was reflective, almost somber. The evening opened with Alter Goldstein, son of Rabbi Aharon Goldstein of Chabad House and nephew of Israel Goldstein, welcoming us. People continued to stream in well past his opening remarks. Every space in Chabad House was taken; not one more person could have been squeezed in to the crowd of over 200.
The evening began with a video of Rabbi Israel Goldstein’s first hand account of the shooting in Poway. The Rabbi described how he came face-to-face with the shooter, so close they looked each other in the eye. He described the point blank shooting, the death of Lori Gilbert-Kaye and how her husband tried to revive her, and his collapse as his sobbing daughter looked on. I was no longer in Chabad in Ann Arbor. I was transported by the Rabbi’s vivid recollection to Chabad in Poway.
In my mind I saw him rush to save the small children, including his grandchildren; I saw the shooter’s gun jam; I heard the Rabbi asked, “Why?” Why in the United States where people come from all over the world for religious freedom? His “why” echoed off the walls of Chabad Ann Arbor; his “why” echoed through the streets of the city; his “why” echoed across the state and the nation.
Then, Rabbi Goldstein uttered three words. They were uttered in both strength and defiance to all that happened. As he uttered the words, “Am Yisrael Chai!” I could feel the mood in the room instantly change from reflective and somber to strong and resolved. Here was a man who had suffered so much strengthening all of us. Truly an incredible individual.
Several Rabbis who were present each gave a short but stirring talk. They spoke of the perseverance of the Jewish people not to back down in the face of evil and urged all to repay hate with love. Those participating were Rabbi Josh Whinston, Temple Beth Emet; Rabbi Nadav Caine; Congregation Beth Isarel; Rabbi Jared Anstanding, Ann Arbor Orthodox Minyah.
The Mayor of Ann Arbor, Christopher Taylor, spoke of his continued support of the Jewish people. The Chief of Police, Robert Pfannes, vowed the protection of the Ann Arbor Police Department. Also in attendance was Fr. Ed Fride who is a pastor of local Catholic parish. Fr. Fride, a supporter of Chabad, was there to show solidarity with the Jewish people.
Now that the men had finished speaking, it was time for the ladies. When Esther Goldstein, wife of Rabbi Aharon Goldstein, began to speak I was reminded why Hashem was not finished when he created Adam. Esther spoke lovingly of her brother-in-law Rabbi Israel Goldstein and how he received his training in Ann Arbor from his brother Rabbi Aharon Goldstein and how he hoped one day to have a Chabad like his brother’s.
She spoke powerfully to the Jewish women encouraging them to, if they were not already doing so, to light the Shabbat candle, cover their eyes, spread their hands, and say the prayer. Then she spoke of Lori Gilbert-Kaye and how we were to think of a mitzvah to perform in her name, thus sending hundreds of mitzvot to Hashem.
We were all encourage to take a candle when leaving. Esther’s daughter, Shterni, then spoke reflecting on why it is we just get together for sad occasions; the Jewish people should come together as one to celebrate joyful times as well It would not have been a Jewish gathering without singing. Spontaneously, over 200 people began singing, “Am Yisrael Chai.” Hearts were uplifted.
As I took my candle upon leaving that evening, I was reminded of the phrase how one
small light can dispel the darkness. Tuesday evening over 200 lights from over 200
candles surely dispelled the darkness not only in Ann Arbor but across the whole
world. Am Yisrael Chai!