Survivor of Poway Shooting, Mrs. Joyce Hoffman, Speaks to Hamodia

NEW YORK -
Flowers and signs sit at a memorial across the street from the Chabad of Poway synagogue, April 28, 2019, in Poway, Calif.

The physical and emotional wounds of the attack at Chabad of Poway are still raw to many in Klal Yisrael, all the more so to those who lived through the tragedy. Joyce Hoffman was one of those who was in shul when the congregation was attacked by a gunman who murdered her decades-long friend, Lori Kaye, Hy”d, and wounded three others. Amid pauses and sobs, she shared with Hamodia her personal ordeal, recollections, and memories.

Arriving at shul towards the beginning of krias haTorah, Mrs. Hoffman gathered siddurim and Chumashim for herself and her family, also taking a sefer Tehillim that she planned to use. On the way into the ezras nashim from the hallway she waved to Mrs. Kaye, who was then talking to several other women. Shortly after passing her friend, Mrs. Hoffman heard a loud boom.

“I didn’t process what was happening, until I heard it a second time,” she said.

Following the shooting in Pittsburgh six months ago, Chabad of Poway’s members had received active shooter response training from the local sheriff’s department, and following the guidance given then, Mrs. Hoffman said, she “dropped to the ground.”

“The whole thing was very fast. The only thing related to the gunman himself was Oscar charging at him. Somewhere in my mind I think I saw a vehicle pull away, but the whole thing is such a blur,” she said. “When I got up I went to see if anyone was hurt, and that’s when I saw my friend laying on the ground, having CPR performed on her.”

The “Oscar” Mrs. Hoffman referred to is her fellow congregant, Oscar Stewart, a U.S. army combat veteran. The man trying to revive Mrs. Kaye was her own husband, Dr. Howard Kaye.

“[Dr. Kaye] didn’t even realize who he was trying to revive. Then when he stopped and saw the face of his beloved wife, his brain shut down and he passed out. Their daughter Hannah was on the ground shaking and crying next to them. I knew she [Mrs. Kaye] was gone, but was praying fervently that Hashem should somehow bring her back to us.”

Congregants quickly organized to gather up all the children, but realized that two were unaccounted for, adding an additional layer of panic to what was already unimaginable trauma as they waited for first responders to arrive.

“It was then that I saw the horrific sight of my rabbi holding a bloody tallis wrapped around his hands,” said Mrs. Hoffman.

The devastated and distressed group were asked by first responders to evacuate the shul. Before Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein was taken to the hospital for treatment, he turned to his congregation to offer words of strength and encouragement that the Jewish People will not be intimidated or defeated by terror.

“I hate to say it but it was the most stirring sermon I ever heard — to hear him say how ‘in every generation they rise up to destroy us but Hashem will deliver us from their hands,’ with his two hands bandaged and face pale from loss of blood,” said Mrs. Hoffman.

Prior to the paramedics transporting the wounded, Rabbi Mendel Goldstein, Rabbi Yisroel’s son, and another assistant rabbi, returned to the shul to transfer the sifrei Torah, still laying on the bimah, to a nearby home.

Meanwhile, police gathered the congregants in a parking lot and sealed off the building. The sheriff’s department sent a helicopter to search for the two children, who were still unaccounted for.

“We were frantic about what had happened to them. Thank G-d we eventually found out that they had ru n away and were hiding in a neighbor’s house,” said Mrs. Hoffman.

Those who had been present at the time of the shooting were interviewed individually by various law enforcement agencies and a neighboring church opened its social hall to the group.

A few hours later, the congregants were escorted by police to Rabbi Mendel Goldstein’s home where they completed the davening from where it had been interrupted.

“We finished reading the Torah and all bentched gomel, it was such a powerful thing; you felt the hair on your arms rise up,” said Mrs. Hoffman.

“We then said Yizkor. It is maybe the first time in history that Yizkor was said for someone so soon after they passed from this world.”

The experience had an additional layer of meaning for Mrs. Hoffman, as both she and Mrs. Kaye had lost their mothers over the past year and had been a comfort to each other during their parents’ respective illnesses and then during the months of mourning.

“I still have an orchid in my living room that she gave me after my mother passed away,” she said. “I’m not good with orchids, but this one is blossoming and beautiful. It epitomizes who Lori was — always blooming and growing.”

Since shiva for Mrs. Kaye commenced Monday evening, Mrs. Hoffman and her husband have undertaken to provide food to the Kaye home. It was a small tribute to Mrs. Kaye herself, who had a fixed custom to deliver hot coffee to anyone in the community sitting shiva.

“Right before Pesach, I was cooking in my kitchen all bedraggled and harried. Lori showed up at my door with flowers for Yom Tov. She was also making two big sedarim, with a lot of family and guests from out of town, but that was her — she was always doing for other people,” said Mrs. Hoffman. She quoted a comment made my Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein after the first Shacharis at the shiva house, that “she [Mrs. Kaye, who was 60 years old] must have lived two lives to do all that she did, and that really she made it to 120.”

Mrs. Hoffman said that amid an accomplished life as a musician, bank manager and community builder, Mrs. Kaye’s family always remained her passion.

“She loved her nuclear family and her extended family with all her heart and soul,” she said. “I remember when her daughter Hannah was born, she felt it was the biggest accomplishment of her life, and this was not a life that had been lived lightly.”

After the birth of her daughter, Mrs. Kaye took off several years from her career, and later worked for a company that made imprints — a position she also used to add a unique niche to her many good works.

“When anybody in the shul made a simchah, she made them a set of chocolate mints with a stamp in them about their bar mitzvah or whatever it was; this was her gift to anyone,” she said.

A strong supporter and active member of Chabad from its founding, Mrs. Kaye led its “friendship circle,” and made her home a base of community hospitality.

“She would do anything for the shul; everyone there was her family. She once had t-shirts made for the shul’s walkathon, and when the rabbi asked for an invoice, just brushed it off saying it was too much trouble to make a bill,” said Mrs. Hoffman. “She was raised in a Reform home and had found her own way back to Orthodoxy. Chabad became her home, and Judaism was a central part of who she was.”

Reflecting on the trauma of the attack and the brutal murder of her friend, Mrs. Hoffman said that her message “echoes” that of Rabbi Goldstein and others in the community.

“We can’t close our doors or hide. And if we encounter hate, we have to fight it with love,” she said. “This is not the first time I was hated for being a Jew. Growing up, I was beaten up several times, and we even had a cross burned on our lawn, but we can’t let that be part of our life. We all have a spark of G-d inside of us. We all come from one Creator, and the more we come to understand that and love each other, the better world we can build.”