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Opinion: Hannah Kaye has shown honor, dignity and grace while mourning her mother killed at Chabad of Poway

Rosen Leib is a freelance journalist. She lives in Solana Beach.

I consider 24-year-old Hannah Kaye a valiant role model in the pursuit of justice. In April 2019, a young man spewing antisemitic hate gunned her mother Lori Gilbert-Kaye down at Chabad of Poway during religious services marking the end of Passover. Hannah kneeled by her beloved mother’s body and comforted her as she lay dying.

At Lori’s funeral, Hannah spoke before hundreds of mourners and the news media with radical honesty about the evolution of their mother/daughter relationship. Heart-piercing photos of Hannah, wearing her mother’s pastel-pink dress and sobbing as she and her father Howard knelt graveside, made international news. Her very public display of grief demonstrated heroic vulnerability.

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In the past four months, this young San Diegan has practiced a gritty resolve that repeatedly required her to relive 2-year-old wounds. We’ve witnessed her suffering through three gut-wrenching court proceedings — her shoulders constricted and quaking with grief, her voice breaking as she choked back sobs and her eyes overflowing with tears.

In September, she delivered a victim impact statement at the state court sentencing hearing for her mother’s murderer, John Earnest, who pleaded guilty to murder, attempted murder and hate crimes to avoid a death sentence. Hannah addressed Earnest directly telling him he’d robbed her of her best friend and soulmate. She then opened a Hebrew prayer book and bravely recited the Kaddish — the Jewish prayer for the dead.

Three months later, at Earnest’s federal sentencing hearing in December, Hannah spoke again of her loss. She lamented the unfathomable antisemitic hatred that motivated him to become a killer. Yet she expressed a willingness to meet with him in the future — demonstrating a magnanimous belief in the possibility of understanding and redemption.

This week, she spoke her truth about the punishment her former rabbi, Yisroel Goldstein, deserved for perpetrating three decades of financial fraud against his Chabad of Poway congregation and the federal government for his personal gain. As Rabbi Goldstein begged for mercy in Judge Cynthia Bashant’s courtroom, he invoked his close relationship with the Kaye family in an apparent ploy for sympathy. Several spectators gasped.

Prior to the hearing, Hannah had mailed a letter to Judge Bashant advocating for Rabbi Goldstein to serve jail time. She, like other former congregants, believes that by pocketing Federal Emergency Management Agency and California Office of Emergency Services grants intended to upgrade synagogue security, Rabbi Goldstein contributed to her mother’s death. Hannah said she thought of her mother who would have wanted justice for the rabbi’s egregious crimes.

Judge Bashant apparently agreed. She ignored the joint prosecution and defense request to sentence Rabbi Goldstein lightly to eight months of home confinement and four years probation. Citing the severity of Goldstein’s crimes and the depths of his greed, she instead sentenced him to 14 months in federal prison. After the hearing, Hannah spoke to reporters, passionately expressing her outrage at Rabbi Goldstein’s exploitation of her mother’s death to serve his own interests.

A brilliant, articulate young woman, Hannah has continually spoken with fierce conviction to ensure justice be served. Her mother’s murderer is locked up in federal prison without the possibility of parole. The corrupt rabbi who grifted money that might have saved her mother’s life has been sentenced to federal prison time. May these developments help bring her some closure and peace. And may she, as we in the Jewish faith say on momentous occasions, “go from strength to strength.”

Hannah has taught us what honoring a mother with dignity and grace while questing for justice looks like.

In turn, she deserves to be honored with our admiration, our well wishes and our prayers that she finds a healing sense of purpose and hope.