San Francisco synagogue confronts capturing, hate crime

Rabbi Bentziyon Pil’s storefront synagogue is straightforward to overlook, only a nook store with packing containers of halvah stacked within the window.

But native prosecutors say Dmitri Mishin knew it was a gathering place for Jewish emigrés who fled the Soviet Union a long time in the past to flee non secular persecution. He lives close by, and is Russian himself.

After darkish on Feb. 1, in a scene captured on surveillance video, a person authorities have recognized as Mishin pushed open the unlocked door and entered the synagogue’s single worship room, the place a dozen folks have been sitting at an extended desk coated in plastic. Pil greeted him, considering the person had come to affix them.

Within seconds he pulled a gun. He struggled to cock it, then started firing, first towards the Torah after which towards the lads — eight blasts marked by the flare of the muzzle.

Matthew Finkelstein leaves the Schneerson Jewish Center, a longtime gathering spot for Russian emigrés in San Francisco.

(Paul Kuroda / For The Times)

The gun turned out to be a reproduction, firing one thing like blanks. But the lads within the room didn’t know that.

The assault was so sudden, so sudden, that not one of the congregants reacted. No one ducked, nobody screamed. The surveillance video has gone viral. But not as a result of the violence is stunning. Instead, individuals are watching as a result of it’s nearly humorous how calm the congregants appear.

Of course, there’s nothing humorous on this assault. But such incidents have grow to be so frequent that this one barely made headlines outdoors San Francisco. Just one other alleged hate crime in a surging tide of them, unremarkable with out deaths to depend.

In our polarized nation the place extremism is being mainstreamed, we have gotten desensitized to something however probably the most egregious acts of hate.

A rabbi raises the Torah at the Schneerson Jewish Center.

Rabbi Bentziyon Pil raises the Torah throughout prayers on the Schneerson Jewish Center.

(Paul Kuroda / For The Times)

In latest weeks, a person was accused of capturing and injuring two Jewish males outdoors their synagogues in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood of Los Angeles. He’s been charged with federal hate crimes. In New Jersey, a person was charged with firebombing a synagogue. In Redding in Northern California and Brownstown Township in Michigan, residents discovered antisemitic fliers left at their properties.

On Feb. 15, a Quincy, Mass., man was indicted on federal expenses for allegedly putting an Asian man along with his automotive after saying, “Go back to China.” That identical week in San Francisco, a person was caught on video throwing eggs at an Asian girl on a Muni bus after yelling racial slurs.

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And Saturday, white supremacists staged a “National Day of Hate” focusing on Jewish folks, promoting a name for vandalism on social media.

That’s all in a few weeks, and never each hate incident I may discover. Few made information outdoors of native press.

Men join in prayer at the Schneerson Jewish Center.

Jacob Hallovany, left, Junior Rabbi Alon Chanukov and Rabbi Bentziyon Pil pray on the Schneerson Jewish Center. Daily worship has continued, regardless of lingering nervousness over a latest capturing.

(Paul Kuroda / For The Times)

Pil and his congregants have been so sure nobody would care what had occurred to them, that the shooter wouldn’t face actual penalties, that they didn’t even name police that evening. Instead, they picked up what regarded like shell casings and put them in a junk drawer.


Underneath the brim of his black hat, Pil has a smile that reaches his eyes, energetic and type.

And drained. Since the capturing, unhealthy goals wake him.

Rabbi Bentziyon Pil stands outside the Schneerson Jewish Center.

Rabbi Bentziyon Pil stands outdoors the Schneerson Jewish Center. A latest capturing has left congregants frightened for his or her security and the synagogue’s future.

(Paul Kuroda / For The Times)

When Pil was a toddler in Samarkand, an historic Silk Road metropolis in Uzbekistan, he was a part of an underground synagogue. Being Jewish was not secure, and every Shabbat, his household would go to a unique home to watch, pretending the gatherings have been birthdays or events.

He remembers tales of elders despatched to Siberian jail camps for his or her religion and a persistent worry {that a} KGB “snitch” was someplace of their midst. His household moved to Israel when he was 15, and later he got here to New York, to the Jewish enclave of Crown Heights, to check.

One day, his brother-in-law and his brother-in-law’s brother noticed a lady at a marriage and thought she’d be a very good match for Pil as a result of she by no means stopped dancing. Pil loves to bop. Mattie was her title, and he or she thought Pil could be a very good match, too — they shared values, she stated, and a want to assist others.

Reuven Katz prays at the Schneerson Jewish Center in San Francisco.

Reuven Katz prays on the Schneerson Jewish Center in San Francisco.

(Paul Kuroda / For The Times)

They courted and married and moved to San Francisco in 1983, the place there was no synagogue for Russian Jews, Pil stated. So they began a group out of their home, residing upstairs and holding Shabbat dinners downstairs. In between having youngsters — there are 10 of them — they fed these in want and created a connection for scattered immigrants who had lengthy felt remoted.

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Sometimes the road to get in ran out the door as a result of there wasn’t sufficient room to sit down inside. The neighbors didn’t like it. Thirteen years in the past, after a couple of different stops, they moved to this location.

It’s small, the dimensions of a college classroom, with three crystal chandeliers extra appropriate to a ballroom hanging overhead and a pale floral carpet beneath. The Torah is on one facet; the opposite facet holds the desk the place the lads have been sitting when the shooter got here, the closest chair only a foot from the door.

Congregants bow their heads in worship at Schneerson Jewish Center.

San Francisco’s district legal professional has promised “zero tolerance for hate” in submitting felony expenses in opposition to a person accused of capturing blanks throughout a latest worship service at Schneerson Jewish Center.

(Paul Kuroda / For The Times)

With its litter — a whole bunch of books, two fake stone sinks, a espresso station, a boombox, a laundry basket, stacked chairs — it’s a welcoming area infused with a way of group. And sacredness. Despite its humbleness, it has that enigmatic sanctity of a spot of worship, a sense {that a} energy higher than people typically drops by.

Pil makes positive that each day, morning and evening, a minyan — a quorum of 10 males needed for Orthodox Jews to carry sure prayers — is current. It’s no simple process to spherical up 10 males twice a day, and Pil is understood for his relentless cellphone calls.

But the reliability of that minyan makes the congregation important past its common members. People come from throughout to participate in communal prayers, such because the honoring of the lifeless or the Birkat HaGomel, recited after recovering from sickness or passing by means of a harmful journey.

Even within the wake of the capturing, Pil discovered his 10.

Aaron Seruya, a congregant from Gibraltar, is commonly considered one of them. “It’s up to us to fight back and think positive and have more faith in God,” he stated.

This is the power Mattie Pil and the rabbi have constructed with 40 years of their persistence and love.

This is what the shooter may have damaged along with his toy gun and hate.


The Schneerson Jewish Center is fronted by big windows that leave congregants feeling vulnerable to another attack.

In the wake of a latest assault, the Schneerson Jewish Center has utilized for state funds that may assist pay for a safety guard and different security measures. But the constructing, with its massive glass home windows and one foremost exit, stays susceptible.

(Paul Kuroda / For The Times)

The day after the capturing, Junior Rabbi Alon Chanukov referred to as the police.

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Chanukov, 35, is youthful than many of the congregation. He was raised within the Chabad of Poway, north of San Diego, the place on the final day of Passover in 2019, a person with an AR-15 killed one girl and injured three others, together with the rabbi. Chanukov knew the girl who was killed.

When he heard in regards to the capturing right here, he was so upset he couldn’t do his morning prayers. Against recommendation, he launched the shul’s surveillance footage. He wished the shooter caught, to verify it wasn’t “treated as just like a nothing,” he stated.

And on the Friday night after the capturing, the shul acquired some excellent news simply because it started celebrating Shabbat. A Jewish police officer got here by to inform them Mishin was in custody. “So you guys can rest easy,” Seruya remembers him saying.

They did for a bit, till they noticed Mishin’s social media feed, the place he had posted a picture of himself in a Nazi uniform and a video of what regarded like him burning one thing outdoors the synagogue days earlier than the assault. It left them with little doubt that they have been focused.

San Francisco Dist. Atty. Brooke Jenkins promised a “zero tolerance for hate” in a information launch in regards to the case, and has filed hate crime expenses in opposition to Mishin. He is dealing with two felony counts of interference with non secular worship and 6 misdemeanor counts that embody the violation of drawing or exhibiting an imitation firearm. If convicted, he may resist 10 years, in keeping with the district legal professional’s workplace.

Mishin pleaded not responsible at his arraignment. There are questions on his psychological well being, and a preliminary listening to is scheduled for Friday. Pil and his congregants worry he might be launched and retaliate in opposition to them — possibly with an actual gun.

The shul has utilized for state funds, put in place after Poway, that may assist pay for a safety guard and different security measures. But the reality is that this constructing, with its massive glass home windows and one foremost exit, won’t ever be secure. Chanukov can now not sit along with his again to the door, nervous who will enter.

The congregation desires to maneuver and has began a GoFundMe to boost the $400,000 it thinks it’ll want, however Chanukov doesn’t know if it’ll occur. The individuals who worship listed below are of modest means.

“We don’t have Mark Zuckerberg as one of our donors,” he stated.

In the meantime, the lifetime of the shul goes on. The minyan meets, the ladies prepare dinner for Shabbat. The males smoke on the sidewalk out entrance, the candles are lit on Friday evening.

“Jews don’t give up,” Mattie Pil stated.

They don’t know if anybody cares what occurred right here, however Mattie hopes they do.

“It’s not about God, it’s about oneness,” she advised me. “About us being together as one.”

Really, the priority shouldn’t solely be about Mishin, not at this chaotic second when hate is in every single place. It’s about what makes the Mishins, what permits them to go unnoticed or unchecked till the gun, actual or not, is of their fingers. Most of us aren’t detached to hate, and we really feel it rising. We simply parse it in our personal minds — racism, misogyny, anti-trans, anti-Asian, antisemitic — and save our outrage for what hits closest.

But hate in any type isn’t only a menace to lives. It menaces the democracy all of us share.

And as Rabbi Pil advised me, it’s the one factor we will’t tolerate.