A Jewish Girl From Poway Reflects On Synagogue Shooting

by Shayna Freedman

Growing up Jewish in Poway never felt like a big deal to me. I was usually one of a very small pool of Jews and was a “token Jew” in public school and among my friends, but it was never a problem for me or those with whom I was friends or classmates. I went to Hebrew school and had a bat mitzvah and never worried about anything bad happening to me because I was Jewish. Still, I knew there was a neo-nazi presence in my hometown and up Route 5 towards Fallbrook (home of the Ku Klux Klan leader Tom Metzger for many years) and east in Ramona, which was fairly rural.

I grew up in Poway, for better and for worst. My father was president of a Conservative Jewish denomination synagogue less than three miles from the Orthodox synagogue, Chabad. A couple of times our sign-monument was vandalized with Nazi symbols and anti-Semitic “code.” The sign was covered and then restored, with other denominations, including a local mosque, offering to help with the restoration. While I knew of the white supremacist presence in the area, I never thought anything violent would happen; and frankly, I did not take it seriously as a potential threat to myself or the Jewish community in Poway.

On April 27th, my hometown suffered an immense loss on the last day of Passover. A 19-year-old white supremacist, who graduated from a school in the same district as mine, decided to kill people in an Orthodox synagogue. His act of violence left three wounded and one dead, including one victim whose daughter is a fellow UCLA student. When I first read the news, I was in shock. It has been 6 months since the shooting in Pittsburg, and I never thought anything like that would happen so close to home, but it's the victims of this shooter who need to be remembered. 

I should have known something like this could happen when during this past Chanukah, a family in Poway reported that their menorah on their front lawn was vandalized. A friend from Poway called me about it, and I said, with sarcasm more than fear, “That’s Poway for you.” I still could not imagine that something deeply violent could occur in our small burg. For me, I was still under the belief that Muslim-Americans and Latino Americans, as well as gay, lesbian and trans-Americans, had more to fear from Trump’s America than I did. And while I strongly oppose Trump and his hateful rhetoric and demons he has unleashed, it was more empathy I felt for these other people than something personal and fearful for me.

As I reflect on this now, I realize that I was too much in denial that this type of murderous violence against Jewish people could happen in an otherwise civilized, liberal-minded suburb in San Diego County. As I recall my father saying when the sign-monument at our temple was vandalized, this is not the Weimar Republic in Germany, and the vast majority of Americans have ingested our Founders’ idea that we are a diverse nation when it comes to religious observance. The fact that the vast majority of people in and around Poway are decent and supportive of religious diversity, and also share my basic human values, is not enough to make me feel safe from the often-armed minority of haters. As I continue to reflect on the sorrow that the victims’ families are experiencing, I am confronted with how scary it is to know that your hometown is not safe, and that going to a synagogue may be risking your life.  

The heat is rising in the United States when an event like this can occur in “liberal” southern California. The heat is rising when a person of the Jewish faith now has to wonder, as she or her family sets foot inside a temple or synagogue, whether it is safe. I refuse to cower or fear, but this one hit home, literally. 

This article is reproduced here with permission from the author. It was originally published on April 30, 2019 by Her Campus and may be found here.