Rabbi Bentziyon Pil founded and runs the Schneerson Center, a synagogue that serves primarily Russian-speaking Jews in San Francisco. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)
Rabbi Bentziyon Pil founded and runs the Schneerson Center, a synagogue that serves primarily Russian-speaking Jews in San Francisco. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)

‘We thought we were safe’: Fallout from Schneerson Center gun scare

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NOW AVAILABLE IN RUSSIAN: Click here to download a PDF of this article translated into Russian.

It all happened in less than a minute.

A man opened the unlocked door of the Schneerson Center, a one-room synagogue in San Francisco primarily serving Russian-speaking Jews. He entered in the middle of a Feb. 1 evening farbrengen, or study session, on the topic of Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the 20th-century Ukrainian-born sage.

The visitor — who seemed familiar, witnesses said — stood near the doorway. For about 10 seconds he waved his arms and spoke to the dozen or so people seated around a long table. He spoke in Russian, but imperfectly, as though he had been living outside the country for a long time.

Nobody sensed any danger, witnesses said. “He looked like a Russian Jew,” Rabbi Bentziyon Pil, the founder of the Schneerson Center, said. “He looked like one of us.”

Pil even thought the man was coming to learn.

What happened next, though, has left its mark on the small Russian Jewish population in the city’s Richmond District — a largely traditional Jewish community for which the Schneerson Center serves as a hub and gathering place.

Screenshot from CCTV footage of the Schneerson Center in San Francisco, Feb. 1, 2023, as an unknown man fires blanks into the room during a study session.
Screenshot from CCTV footage of the Schneerson Center in San Francisco, Feb. 1, 2023, as an unknown man fires blanks into the room during a study session.

The man pulled what looked like a pistol from inside his jacket. Police said it wasn’t a real gun but an “imitation” firearm. He fiddled with the weapon, trying to cock it. The people in the room remained seated in soft, leather-like armchairs. They looked at him, not knowing exactly what to think, witnesses said.

Nobody really moved, a surveillance video of the incident shows, except for one elderly man who got up with a phone in his hand. Some were in shock. One shul member who was not present suggested they were effecting a stoic demeanor — typical of immigrants from the former Soviet Union — and taking their cues from everyone else in the room. Some wondered if the man was playing some kind of practical joke. “A bit of Russian humor,” Mattie Pil, the rabbi’s wife, said.

“They didn’t sense the danger,” another synagogue member said.

But then the man did something even more shocking: He started firing. He shot left, in the direction of the Torah ark, then right, in the direction of the people seated. He fired between six and eight shots in a quick burst; the whole thing took fewer than three seconds.

At one point, the man said “I’m from Mossad,” Pil said, though some news outlets reported he said “Say hello to Mossad for me.” His exact words will become important should the incident be scrutinized in a criminal trial in the months ahead, as prosecutors seek to prove his state of mind.

After firing he returned the weapon to his jacket pocket, announced “Send regards to Haifa!” and left with a wave goodbye.

The shots didn’t hit anyone, or anything, because they were blanks, which generate a muzzle flash and sound but no projectile.

On Feb. 3, with help from the FBI, San Francisco police arrested 51-year-old Dmitri Mishin as a suspect, searching his home and seizing “evidence related to the incidents.” They said Mishin also brandished an imitation gun at the Balboa movie theater the previous day.

The incident stunned not only the Schneerson Center, but Jews across the city. Its aftermath has also laid bare a certain gulf within the Jewish community — between the enclave of Russian Jews and the American-born, overwhelmingly liberal Jews who make up the majority of the San Francisco Jewish population.

Schneerson Center in San Francisco. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)Schneerson Center, blanks, synagogue shooting
Schneerson Center in San Francisco. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)

“I don’t think that we have fully come to grips with our relationship to one another as Jews,” said Matthew Finkelstein, a younger member of the Schneerson Center community who is also a board member with the Progressive Zionists of California, an activist group.

He said that while the liberal Jewish community took great pride decades ago in rescuing Soviet Jewish “refuseniks” who were being denied permission to emigrate, once the new emigres arrived in San Francisco, “they had almost nothing to do with one another,” he said.

“I think this incident has highlighted some very critical disconnects in our social safety net,” he said, “and critical disconnects in our community itself.”

Established in 2002, the Schneerson Center moved into its current building on Balboa Street 13 years ago. Every day it hosts a dozen or more people, mostly men, for morning and evening services. Many who attend say it’s one of the few places in the city where there is a daily minyan — a group of 10 men, required for certain prayers in the Orthodox tradition.

Scores come for Shabbat and holidays, when a mechitza is used to divide men and women in accordance with Orthodox custom. Families with children come to pray.

And yet to describe the Schneerson Center as a shul does not capture the purpose it serves for the Russian-speaking Jewish community. It’s more like a communal living room. A group of regulars, all retirees, gather every day for prayer, meals and conversation in a mix of Russian, English and Hebrew.

“Everyone is family,” said Alon Chanukov, a programmer in his 30s who prays daily at the center.

On a recent Friday morning, a handful of men sat around the table eating scrambled eggs with slices of banana and avocado.

Adam Genser, a professional cook, prepares the breakfasts each day. Genser said he likes to make hearty meals, such as huevos rancheros, “stuff that sticks to your ribs,” for the seniors on fixed incomes who spend their mornings at the center.

Adam Genser at the Schneerson Center in San Francisco. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)
Adam Genser at the Schneerson Center in San Francisco. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)

It was a typical weekday morning scene. Just minutes earlier, 16 men had been praying Shacharit, the morning service, draped in tallit and wrapped in tefillin, muttering words of praise under their breath while Rabbi Pil announced page numbers in Russian.

Among them was Isroel Berdichevskiy, an 83-year-old immigrant from Odessa, who came to the U.S. in the ’90s after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He was the man in the video who was trying to leave the room to call his brother when the suspect started firing.

With the help of a translator (he speaks only some English), Berdichevskiy described his reaction to the shooting with a mix of seriousness and humor. He said, laughing, that his first reaction in the moment was anger that the suspect had interrupted his call.

But he also said the shooting deeply affected his sense of security and safety. “It was very, very unexpected,” he said. “No one could ever think that it could happen.”

The reason nobody appeared to react to the gun was akin to “a rabbit looking into the eyes of a snake,” he said. “It gets hypnotized.”

The man, he said, seemed “a little bit crazy.”

Mishin has a troubled past. A background check showed arrests for DUI and drug possession in counties across Northern California. He had also been arrested by San Francisco police numerous times, according to a report in the San Francisco Standard: In 2019, Mishin was detained on suspicion of stabbing a friend during a drunken fight; in 2018 he allegedly threw an ax at a woman; and in 2016 he was placed in involuntary psychiatric detention after an episode during which police said he threw plates and glasses out his apartment window. In 2013 he owned 11 firearms, a police records check showed.

Meanwhile, a Twitter account bearing Mishin’s name showed a history of antisemitic posts.

A photo posted by a Twitter account linked to Dmitri Mishin appears to show the Schneerson Center shooting suspect wearing a Nazi uniform.
A photo posted by a Twitter account linked to Dmitri Mishin appears to show him wearing a Nazi uniform.

In the posts, a man who looks like a much younger version of Mishin is seen wearing a military uniform with a Nazi pin. In another, a photo of rank anti-Jewish propaganda in German includes a degrading caricature of a Jewish person. The account also published a video of a fire burning outside the Schneerson Center at night, posted just days before the shooting.

Since the incident, the Schneerson Center has garnered visits from the FBI and representatives of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, and phone calls from former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Mayor London Breed.

The Jewish Community Federation also has helped with bulking up security, Rabbi Pil said, adding that the shul would be taking a number of steps — including securing its perimeter — while at the same time remaining accessible to anyone who might want to come and pray.

Rafael Brinner, the Federation’s director of community security, told J. his organization’s Community Security Program “is fast-tracking support to the Schneerson Center and furnished an array of recommendations.”

“What happened on February 1 at the Schneerson Center was a wake-up call, reminding us that we must commit to action,” Brinner wrote in an email.

While generally appreciative of the community support, some Schneerson Center members said they feel the response of the wider Jewish community has been tepid.

In the national Jewish press, a Feb. 9 newsletter puzzled over the behavior of those inside the room when the shooting happened, rather than plainly characterizing the incident as an antisemitic attack. Another article about the incident devoted paragraphs to Pil’s financial misdeeds decades ago. (In the 1990s Pil was embroiled in investigations related to shady financial dealings tied to a now-defunct Jewish nonprofit. A federal judge sentenced him to nine months in a halfway house.)

Finkelstein called these articles lashon hara, a halachic term for speaking ill about people behind their backs.

The Feb. 1 shooting wasn’t the first antisemitic incident in the area. Just days before the incident, students at a nearby Jewish elementary school found a swastika drawn on a public playground they use for recess.

In California, hate crimes targeting Jews have been on the rise over the last 10 years, and San Francisco has not been immune. In December, a man was arrested after allegedly attacking a Jew with a skateboard while shouting antisemitic insults in an incident late at night on Haight Street.

Aaron Seruya is a regular worshipper at the Schneerson Center in San Francisco. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)
Aaron Seruya is a regular worshipper at the Schneerson Center in San Francisco. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)

Citing her commitment to tackling hate crimes, District Attorney Brooke Jenkins said her office would be taking a muscular approach to the Mishin prosecution. City prosecutors charged him with two felony counts of interfering with religious worship, plus hate crimes, and multiple misdemeanors for brandishing an imitation weapon. He could face up to 10 years in prison.

Jenkins told J. in an interview her office is “send[ing] a message to anyone else who is contemplating engaging in antisemitic acts that they will not be tolerated here under any circumstances.”

Meanwhile large Bay Area Jewish community institutions praised the actions of law enforcement. The Jewish Community Relations Council Bay Area called the shooting an “incident of terror” and thanked police and DA Jenkins for their “quick work” in arresting the suspect and bringing charges. The Anti-Defamation League also expressed gratitude to law enforcement, saying in a statement it would “continue to monitor the matter” as it makes its way through the court system.

At the same time, some at the Schneerson Center wondered whether the law enforcement response would be sufficient. Those present the night of the shooting didn’t want to call police, worried that the suspect would get only a “slap on the wrist” and then come back angrier.

“We love the police when they do a good job, but their hands are tied,” said Aaron Seruya, a regular worshipper who said he has been the target of antisemitism. “Once they arrest people, they release prisoners right away, and then they go back to crime.”

Mishin was scheduled to be arraigned on Feb. 17. His public defender argues he did not commit a hate crime, calling the gun a replica and pointing out that “no one was physically harmed.”

Nevertheless, the shooting incident has left scars.

Berdichevskiy said he would still come to the Schneerson Center in the morning, but maybe not at night anymore, because “there is nobody to look out for us.”

“Whether or not this person is insane, his actions have led to a significant amount of anxiety for a whole community,” Chanukov, the programmer, said. The suspect lives just blocks from the shul, and “he walked here to do this.”

“We thought we were safe before now,” Chanukov added. “But we don’t have that illusion anymore.”

Correction: Due to a translation error, a previous version of this article stated that Isroel Berdichevskiy is 93. He is 83.

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.