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Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, injured in April assault, retires from Chabad of Poway

Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, with Poway Mayor Steve Vaus, greets President Trump
Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, center, and Poway Mayor Steve Vaus greet President Trump at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in September.
(Howard Lipin / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Days after a gunman’s April 27 attack on Chabad of Poway, Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein took to the road. His wounded hands wrapped in blue bandages, he became a public symbol of resilience and hope.

Speaking at the White House and the United Nations; to gatherings in Brazil, Poland and New York; and to news outlets ranging from global TV news networks to the local newspaper, he delivered an upbeat message.

“If hate can leap across continents, so can love and light that will defeat it,” the rabbi told the U.N. General Assembly in June. “If darkness can be spread throughout the world, so can light that can outshine it.”

Privately, though, pressures were building. This week, it was announced that the 58-year-old rabbi had retired as the leader of Chabad of Poway, the synagogue he founded in 1986.

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“It was a really rough year and then he immediately made himself a spokesperson,” said Elisheva Green, a leader of the Friendship Circle, a synagogue program for people with special needs. “He needs some downtime now. He’s really exhausted.”

One of his five sons, Rabbi Mendel Goldstein, has assumed leadership of the synagogue and its school.

Another son, Rabbi Shuie Goldstein, and his wife, Devorah Goldstein, took charge of the Friendship Circle.

“We are grateful for Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein’s thirty-plus years of leadership, especially in the aftermath of the terror attack, and he will forever be a part of our community’s story,” the synagogue said in a statement Friday. “We are thrilled to have Rabbi Mendel Goldstein take the reins of our center, and have great confidence in his skills and ability to lead. He has served the community since 2015, and comes to the position with years of experience and a contagious enthusiasm.”

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Even before the Passover assault on Chabad of Poway, an attack that left congregant Lori Gilbert-Kaye dead and Goldstein and two others wounded, the rabbi had been grooming his sons to succeed him. But the tragedy complicated Goldstein’s schedule and tore at his heart.

He mourned Gilbert-Kaye, a friend as well as a congregant. Phantom pains emanated from where his right index finger had been shot off. His left index finger, shattered by a bullet fragment, required surgeries and physical therapy. Demands on his time became so overwhelming that he stopped giving interviews and even declined the chief rabbi of Israel’s invitation to speak in Jerusalem.

Chabad of Poway also struggled to heal. The Anti-Defamation League reported a rise in anti-Semitic threats after the shooting, including at least two directed at the synagogue.

A Washington state man was arrested after threatening violence against President Trump’s family, media figures and Jews, specifically calling for the murder of Goldstein. And a Concord, Calif., man boasted online of his desire to imitate the Chabad of Poway shooter. Upon his arrest, he was found to have an illegal, homemade assault weapon.

“As a community we have suffered a great deal, more than any community should know of,” a statement from Chabad of Poway said. “We are working hard to heal and get back on our feet, and now, under the leadership of Rabbi Mendel Goldstein, we look forward to continue to grow and create more light and goodness around us.”

In fact, the synagogue has been buoyed by expressions of support.

“We have a whole new garden that was planted by our neighbors,” Green said. “An Eagle Scout made a bench for elderly congregation members to rest on. The community has just been wonderful, so many people have really been so supportive.”

What next for Yisroel Goldstein? In interviews and speeches this year, he mentioned a dream project he calls “a billion good deeds.” The venture, he said, was rooted in the teachings of his mentor, or “rebbe,” Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late leader of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.

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“We are going to conquer the world with a billion good deeds, an initiative that we are going to flood the internet with,” Goldstein said in June. “We are going to flood social media to excite people to start doing good deeds. As the rebbe taught us, through random acts of goodness and kindness, you create light in the world.”

A nonprofit with that name — A Billion Good Deeds — has been established in upstate New York, near the home of the rabbi’s brother Zalman Goldstein.

Rowe writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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