Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein meets with President Donald Trump at a White House National Day of Prayer Service. / Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour

This spring, members of Chabad of Poway witnessed scenes from a pogrom firsthand when a gunman tore through their place of worship, killing one woman and injuring several others.

Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein’s perseverance was remarkable. Rather than despair in the face of violence, he stood above his congregation and gave an impromptu sermon. A bullet had just ripped his right index finger.

“Terrorism like this will not take us down,” he would later recall saying.

Indeed, what had happened inside the temple was an act terrorism, plain and simple, and the white gunman was not the lone wolf that authorities and the media tend to portray white gunmen as. He was hateful, yes, but his ideology has a long tradition. His system of belief was not incoherent.

By hunting down people in a synagogue, the gunman’s actions reached back thousands of years, a point Goldstein would make over and over again in interviews and speeches. A manifesto left behind by the gunman paid homage to several recent massacres, including a series of shootings inside New Zealand mosques that left 51 people dead.

Goldstein put his Jewishness front and center after the Poway shooting, but his message was also one of solidarity, as he urged the country to recommit to its founding principle of equality and questioned what we’ve been teaching children. The alleged shooter was 19 when he opened fire.

Photographs of Goldstein and Steve Vaus, the cowboy hat-toting mayor of Poway, hugging and walking arm in arm, traveled the world. Overnight, the rabbi went from a low-key religious leader in North County to a global symbol of resiliency and religious freedom, speaking at the United Nations and in Europe and South America.

“If hate can leap across continents, so can love and light that will defeat it,” he said.

When he retired last month, a friend of his told the Union-Tribune that he was exhausted and needed some downtime. He is, after all, only human.

But in response to the attention he and others brought to the Poway synagogue, local authorities acknowledged San Diego’s own history of white supremacy and disavowed it.

This is part of our Voice of the Year package, highlighting the people who played a major role in shaping civic discussion in 2019.

Jesse Marx is a former Voice of San Diego associate editor.

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