Our hearts break every time we read another story about a shooting, whether at a synagogue or a school or somewhere else. But what always goes in tandem with moments of tragedy and evil are moments of heroism by many more people who strive to save others amidst the mayhem.
The synagogue shooting near San Diego was no different. Yes, we saw a cowardly gunman, but we also witnessed others with the courage to put themselves in harm's way to save others.
Enter Oscar Stewart. An observant Jew and a former Chicago resident who relocated back to San Diego a few years ago, he was doing what he does every Saturday morning on the day of the attack: Davening at the Chabad of Poway.
But whereas he usually sits in the front corner of the synagogue so as not to get distracted, something compelled him that morning to move to the back of the sanctuary during the Torah service. A week before, during the second Passover Seder, a similar feeling-that he couldn't quite identify-had moved him to weep while reading Hallel.
So, when the shooting began, Stewart was in the back. For a split second, he told me on the phone a couple of days after the attack, he contemplated running away from the gunman. But when he glanced out at the children playing on the synagogue playground, and then looked over at his wife and stepdaughter praying on the women's side of the sanctuary, he opted to run toward the gunman instead. For those children, for his loved ones, for humanity, he couldn't leave--he had to help.
Stewart looked the gunman directly in the face. "He was in terror," he said. "He dropped his weapon to his side and started running." Stewart attempted to subdue him with the help of off-duty patrolman Jonathan Morales, chasing him and firing on his car.
The whole episode went by in a flash. "I didn't have an ounce of fear in me," Stewart recalled, his voice breaking on the phone. "That's what I think the Seder and God were telling me: I'm going to protect you--you have to do what's right."
After the chase, Stewart returned to the sanctuary to aid the wounded. Poway Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, another hero of the day who lost his index finger in the attack, told Stewart not to worry about him and to help other victims; Stewart administered CPR on Lori Gilbert Kaye, of blessed memory, but in the end she succumbed to her injuries.
This isn't the first time Stewart has run into harm's way. In his early 20s, he joined the Navy as a bomb disposal technician. Then, he left the military, lived life, and had a family. After 9/11, he was compelled to serve again-deploying in 2003 to Iraq, where he rose to the rank of sergeant. Here again, he desired to help where he could be useful-a running theme in his life.
"I think my [military] training is instinctive," he explained. "At [synagogue], I didn't really have to think--training just kicked in. Once you learn something like that, it becomes a sixth sense."
Stewart is someone who runs toward danger when others flee. Why, I asked him, what's in his makeup? "God put me on earth to do something and that's my mission in life. God gives us all a mission and my mission is to save people. It's just part of me I think."