SAN DIEGO — In dark moments, it’s wise to listen to a rabbi. 

Darkness descended recently upon this laidback Southern California community on the coast. 

It came when John Earnest — a well-liked straight-A nursing student, classical pianist, and all-American boy with twisted ideas in his head, and evil in his heart — stormed into a packed synagogue in a suburban city on the final day of Passover with what the county sheriff called an “AR-type assault weapon,” and opened fire with a desire to kill Jews.  

One person was killed, and three more were injured. 

The deceased was Lori Gilbert Kaye, a devout 60-year-old worshipper at Chabad of Poway, about 30 miles north of San Diego, who, according to friends and family, brought light into the lives of many people over the years by sharing her time, affection, and effort with those who needed it. 

The injured included an 8-year-old girl named Noya Dahan, who recently moved to the San Diego-area from what is normally a more dangerous place, the Israeli city of Sderot, located only a mile from the Gaza Strip. Since 2001, Sderot has been the target of thousands of rockets fired off by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. 

Also injured was Rabbi Yisroel Goldstein, who was shot in both hands and lost his right index finger in the attack. He survived. 

And that’s because Kaye apparently jumped in front of Goldstein as the gunman was preparing to fire another round at him. According to little Dahan and other witnesses, Kaye put herself in the line of fire and said something like: “If the Rabbi dies, I die.” Earnest fired, and Kaye died. 

There could have been much more bloodshed. Police said Earnest came armed with dozens of rounds of ammunition. But, unexpectedly, once in the synagogue, the rifle jammed. That gave Oscar Stewart, a military veteran who served in Iraq, the chance to rush Earnest, even though Stewart was unarmed. Earnest fled the church, and he was soon arrested.

The 19-year-old was charged with first-degree murder and three counts of attempted murder, all with the special circumstances enhancement that come with hate crimes. If convicted, he could get the death penalty.

In a statement, Earnest’s parents said they were “shocked and deeply saddened” by their son’s actions. “To our great shame,” they said, “he is now part of the history of evil that has been perpetuated on Jewish people for centuries.”

Speaking of evil, Earnest left behind his motivation for the attack. It’s race hatred. In a sickening 4,000-word manifesto published online, Earnest described Jews as destroying the white race. Latinos and African-Americans are part of the conspiracy, but they’re bit players. Jews run the show, according to Earnest. 

In his mind, Jews are not white. This isn’t about religion or skin color, but about culture. Earnest may say “white” but he means “WASP.” And he sees himself as uniquely positioned to avenge, through violence, the wrongs done to his people, white people, because someone has to do it. 

Local media commentators call Earnest a white supremacist. But that’s not so. White supremacists are always on the offensive, and they think they’re superior to people of color. 

Earnest was on the defensive, and he believes white people are being threatened with elimination by people of color. 

Where did this young man, who probably doesn’t remember any U.S. president before George W. Bush, acquire such an ancient perspective? He wrote in his manifesto that his parents didn’t teach it to him.

He wrote that he picked a lot of it up from an online message board, where he has been roaming around for the last 18 months or so. He wrote that what he learned there about how the world really works, and how Jews are destroying whites, was “priceless.” Not to mention vile. 

Catholics know this story well, a variation of it, anyway. Anti-Catholic prejudice and bigotry left scars on the first half of the 20th century. To many, our customs and rituals have always seemed like superstitions.  

Even in a country that is advertised as welcoming and celebrating diversity, those who are different frighten those who are closeminded, insecure, and intolerant. ’Twas always thus. 

And what’s that about the rabbi? What does Goldstein have to tell us?

“I had to look the murderer in the face for something for me to impart to the rest of the world,” he told CBS News. “Something has to change. It’s time for a change. It’s not just anti-Semitism. It’s all type of bigotry. We have lost our soul.”

He’s right, you know. Something feels different. In the United States, and around the world, compassion and empathy are falling by the wayside. Hatred and acrimony are surging. We have lost our soul. And we have to get it back.

Ruben Navarrette is a contributing editor to Angelus and a syndicated columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group and a columnist for the Daily Beast. He is a radio host, a frequent guest analyst on cable news, a member of the USA Today Board of Contributors, and host of the podcast “Navarrette Nation.” Among his books are “A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano.”

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