14-Year-old Arrested for Assault on Rabbi Outside University City Synagogue

UNIVERSITY CITY, Calif. (The San Diego Union-Tribune/Hamodia) -
Rabbi Yonatan Halevy of Kehillat SHaar Hashamayim in University City, California. (Courtesy of Shiviti)

A 14-year-old boy was arrested Friday on suspicion of a hate crime, a week after a rabbi was punched near Kehillat Shaar Hashamayim, informally called the Shiviti Congregation, his University City synagogue.

The boy was booked into Juvenile Hall on battery and hate crime charges, San Diego police Lt. Shawn Takeuchi said.

Hours before the arrest was announced, Rabbi Yonatan Halevy spoke with The San Diego Union-Tribune about the Oct. 10 encounter on Governor Drive.

Last weekend, he and his father were walking toward the synagogue when a teen rode past on his bike, then abruptly turned around – and brought a clenched fist down on top of the rabbi’s head.

The force knocked the 31-year-old off his feet.

The young assailant spewed slurs, said something about White power, then rode off laughing, Halevy said told the Union-Tribune.

“I was shocked, stunned, and hurt, but was grateful that my father was unharmed,” he wrote on his synagogue website.

He said he and his congregation had been targeted by a group of teens, including the alleged assailant, for a few weeks before the attack. They had been heckled and a car window was broken.

Because the teen accused in the assault is a minor, police did not release his name.

Earlier this week, before the arrest, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in San Diego said people should not shrug off the encounter as youth behaving badly.

“We don’t want to be dismissive and say it was just kids,” Tammy Gillies said. “We have to take hate and any hate incident very seriously.”

Gillies called the University City incident a “message crime.”

“It doesn’t just impact the target, but it’s a message to the whole community that says, ‘We don’t want you here,” she said. “That is the double impact of the hate crime.”

The rabbi said it took 42 minutes for police to arrive as he and his father hunkered down inside their synagogue after it happened.

They called 911. They had a description of the assailant. They had photos, too, because the teen had lingered outside, taunting them. But, the rabbi said, the responding officers told him there was not much they could do.

That changed Monday, with a call to Halevy from police brass in the Northern Division. “It went from ‘They can’t do anything’ to ‘This is No. 1 priority,'” Halevy told the Union-Tribune.

On Friday, police acknowledged the fumbled initial response.

Capt. Matt Novak runs Northern Division, and his officers responded to the rabbi’s call for help. Through a department spokesman, Novak said he “spoke to the rabbi personally, and acknowledged that the initial response could have been better.”

The captain also said that “going forward, we will be having discussions and possibly training with officers to help them better understand and better respond to incidents like these.”

Halevy was encouraged to see the police send out “the cavalry.” “To the credit of the Police Department, they have owned up to their inadequate response,” he said.

Recent years have brought an increase in hate-crime charges brought by the District Attorney’s Office. In 2018 and again in 2019, the office filed hate crime charges against 30 people.

That includes the case brought against then-19-year-old university student John Earnest, who is accused of an April 2019 shooting spree in a Poway synagogue, killing one and wounding three. He is also accused of starting fires outside an Escondido mosque.

So far this year in San Diego County, local law enforcement has submitted 39 potential hate-crime cases to prosecutors for consideration. Prosecutors brought charges in 29 of the cases, although only 15 were filed with hate-crime allegations.