Eight-year-old Noya Dahan had finished praying and gone to play with other children at her Poway, California synagogue when gunshots rang out out Saturday.
“I was scared, really, really scared,” said Noya, recalling how the group of children cried out of fear after a gunman entered Chabad of Poway on Saturday morning and started shooting. “I didn’t see my dad. I thought he was dead.”
Dahan was one of three people injured in a shooting rampage at the Chabad synagogue near San Diego, along with her uncle, and the rabbi of the congregation. Another woman, Lori Gilbert-Kaye was killed in the attack.
With barely a day having passed since the attack, Dahan and others in her family recalled the moments that the synagogue where she would attend services and play with friends turned into a blood-filled nightmare.
“I saw the rabbi shout and scream and run towards the man who shot, then a bullet hit him and I saw two of his fingers were cut off, it was so scary,” she recounted.
Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein lost a finger on his left hand and later had surgery on his right hand to try to preserve his index finger.
“Then there was another bullet and he jumped and the bullet passed beneath him and went past me and hit my leg a little,” Dahan said.
Her uncle Almog Peretz then grabbed her and the other children, leading them outside as her leg bled from a shrapnel wound.
Peretz, who has been hailed as a hero for helping rush children out the door even as he too was injured, returned to the synagogue on Sunday, limping slightly from shrapnel wounds to his leg and pointing out to reporters where he ran when the gunman burst in.
“As I was running out the door [to the playground] he was behind me shooting at me,” Peretz said in a (Hebrew) video aired by Israel’s Channel 12 news:Peretz found several more children outside and told them to run, leading them to safety.
He said he has since woken up in a cold sweat remembering that moment.
“All the children were in the yard and heard a loud noise inside,” he said. “When children become afraid, where do they run if not to their parents? But the parents were inside. Imagine 20 kids running back into the synagogue, and that man standing there with his weapon.”
Peretz led the children to an adjacent house where they were let inside. When he surveyed the children he suddenly realized that his other niece, Noya’s five-year-old sister Lian, was missing.
He ran back towards the synagogue.
“If we had lost a child in there, we would never have gotten through it,” he said. “These are children I see every day, smiling, laughing. If one of them had died, I would be done for life, especially if it were my niece. I preferred to die myself than abandon them. I’d be a coward otherwise.”
Lian, meanwhile, was hiding in the synagogue’s bathroom. She had just gone into the toilet when the shooting started. Hearing the bangs and shouts from the main hall, she remained there until the commotion ended.
“Then someone came and I asked if he was a good or a bad man. He told me ‘It’s okay I’m a Jew,’ so I asked him to take me to my dad,” she told the Yedioth daily.
Goldstein has said only the fact that the shooter’s gun jammed prevented a much greater tragedy. The suspect, 19-year-old John Earnest, fled the scene after an ex-Marine in the congregation charged at him but was captured shortly afterwards. He has been booked into custody on one count of murder in the first degree and three counts of attempted murder in the first degree.
Authorities said Earnest, who had no previous contact with law enforcement, may face a hate crime charge in addition to homicide charges when he is arraigned later this week. He was being held without bail, and it was unclear if he had an attorney.
Several people have said that Gilbert-Kaye threw herself in front of Goldstein to protect him as the shooting started, possibly saving his life.
Speaking outside the synagogue Sunday, Goldstein described Kaye as a pioneering founding member of the congregation and said he was heartbroken by her death. He said the attack could have harmed many more people had the shooter turned toward the sanctuary where so many were praying.
“Lori took the bullet for all of us,” the rabbi said, his hands wrapped in bandages. “She didn’t deserve to die.”
He said that Kaye’s physician husband was called to tend to a wounded worshipper and fainted when he realized it was his wife.
Lian Dahan said she also saw Gilbert-Kaye’s body as she was being taken out.
The parents of Noya and Lian have since struggled to explain to them the events and the reason they happened.
The family had moved to California from the Israeli town of Sderot near the Gaza border, a frequent target of rocket attacks by the Hamas terror group, only to find they weren’t safe on the other side of the world either. The family earlier suffered another anti-Semitic attack when someone painted a swastika on their home in another California town.
“We are going from fire to fire,” father Israel Dahan told Israel Radio Sunday.
On Sunday, Noya appeared flustered by the attention she and her family have received since the shooting.
“There’s too many cameras in here,” she said of the family’s home in Poway, a short distance away from the synagogue. “It’s really crazy.”
She said she was frightened to go back to synagogue after the attack.
“At the synagogue you should feel safe and it should be fun, but now I’m really frightened and I don’t know if I’ll go back to that synagogue.”