I have just finished buying electronics at Best Buy at the Westfield Garden State Plaza mall in New Jersey. It is about 9:10 p.m. and I have our three young children, ages 12, 7 and 5, with me because they have no school the following day due to the statewide elections.
My wife Debbie and our 15-year-old daughter are also in the mall. Since it closes at 9:30 p.m., I call Debbie and tell her I will walk the kids into the mall’s main building to meet her.
Best Buy is detached from the mall. We walk across the parking lot and into the entrance. There is a carousel in front of us and I decide I should put the kids on it until the mall closes.
Suddenly, people start running toward us screaming, “There’s a shooter! SHOOTER! Run! Get out!” There have been so many shootings lately in America that I know exactly what this is. A crazy person is on a shooting rampage in a mall and this time we are not watching it on TV, we are not reading about it on the net. We are at the center of it.
I take the three kids by the hands and we begin to run away from the mall. The kids are in utter panic, absorbing what is happening. They are not crying. Yet. I stop outside the car. I dial my wife, whom I had spoken to just five minutes earlier. The call goes straight to voicemail. I call my daughter. Straight to voicemail. I am gripped by terror. I call again, both numbers. Straight to voicemail. I am shaking. Why won’t they answer? My God, my God, why won’t they answer? I pray to my Creator and beg Him for mercy. “This is my wife. This is my child. Please protect them.” Why won’t they answer?
I put the kids in the car. I am outside on the phone. I call again. Mercy of mercies, my wife answers. She is trembling as she speaks. “There’s a shooter, Shmuley, right outside a store we’re in. The salesperson saw him. He was carrying an AK-47, holding it in the air. We heard about 6 shots. We’re terrified. Where are you? Get out. Get out of the mall. Are the kids O.K.?”
I assure her that we’re safe, in the parking lot. Is she safe? She says, “We’re hiding, locked in a stock room with about 10 other people. But the door is made of glass.”
I tell her that she must not come out and to answer her phone. She explains that the reason the phones went to voicemail was that they were both calling 911. I tell her, “No matter what, answer if I call.”
I get off the phone and call 911. I tell them there is a shooter in the Garden State Mall. How can there be no police? It’s been minutes and no response. They tell me to tell my wife to hide and not come out.
I call the owners of the Westfield Mall Corporation, the Lowy family, with whom I have stayed in touch since my time as a Rabbinical student in Sydney, Australia. Answering machine. I call a mutual friend in L.A. He miraculously gets the head of mall security on the line. I tell him where my wife and daughter are hiding. He assures me someone will come to get them. He is comforting and assuring. Your wife and daughter will be O.K.
Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, my close friend whose swearing-in my wife and I attended just last Thursday in D.C., pops instantly into my mind. He has battled assault weapons in New Jersey for years. He has shared with me countless stories of tragic shootings in our state. Having been mayor of Newark, right nearby, he will know the local police. He will expedite the police presence and get them to rescue the people inside. He will be able to tell them where my wife and daughter are so they can be rescued. Cory is very close to my wife and children. I text him in bold letters. “CORY THERE IS A SHOOTER IN THE GARDEN STATE MALL!!” I text his senior adviser, a close friend, who calls me right back and assures me he is on the phone with the police. He is informing them of the many people trapped inside and my wife’s whereabouts.
His adviser proceeds to call me every few minutes and calls my wife as well. He is an angel from heaven. Debbie is calmer now because the sounds of the gunshots have subsided.
Suddenly the people in the parking lot are running as well. “Gun shots, gun shots,” they scream. I swear I can hear loud pops. I get into the car. I am driving in circles in the parking lot. I want to be safe with the kids, but I don’t want to leave the mall because my wife and daughter are inside.
I am calling my wife every minute, getting her to assure me she is O.K. and that her cell phone is not going to die. “Don’t leave me with no way to contact you and don’t leave where you are. And tell the people with you to speak softly.”
The children are crying in the back of the car. I assure them that their mother and sister are going to be fine. God is going to protect them. We recite Psalm 20 in Hebrew. We repeat it. I call my wife again. She tells me she is O.K. and that there is no sound of gunfire. They continue to hide in the storeroom.
I drive out of the parking lot and reach a 7-11. There is a woman outside, shaking, speaking on her cell phone. She tells me she was in Nordstrom’s, heard all the shots, and ducked under the clothing and hid. She got out. Her family who was with her are safe. She asks if I have anyone inside the mall and I tell her. She tells me she prays my family will be safe.
On Twitter I spread the word of the shooting. I ask everyone to pray for the people inside without saying that my wife and daughter are there.
I am calling my wife every few minutes. I am thinking to myself that America has gone crazy. This past Friday night, for Shabbat dinner, the main point of conversation of our guests was the terrible shooting in Los Angeles at LAX and the other shootings that week at schools. Now, we’re at the center of it. Could this really be happening?
My wife finally tells me that she thinks they are beginning to evacuate people. They can see scores of police outside the store. I tell her not to move until they come for her.
I get the kids back into the car and we drive to a parking lot overlooking the Garden State Plaza where we can see SWAT teams moving into the building and a growing police presence. There are helicopters overhead.
Senator Booker calls to ask if my wife is O.K. At that moment, as if by a miracle, she calls on the other line and tells me that the SWAT teams have come to move them out. I connect the calls on my phone. Cory, ever the gentleman, tells my wife not to panic and he is so happy to hear she is O.K. His warmth and caring comforts us both.
A few moments later my wife calls me to tell me she is safely out. SWAT members screamed to them to move out with their hands in the air. A military scene was all around her as they made them run out of the building. The gunman is still at large and they are briskly moving people out, with bulletproof shields protecting them.
I begin reciting Psalm 91. “It is good to give thanks to the LORD, to sing praises to the Most High.” I also think to myself how incredible and brave the police are.
My wife and daughter are safe. It’s a miracle. Thank you, Oh Lord, for your kindness to me and my family, I say to myself. I will try to be a better person, a better servant of yours, Oh Lord.
An employee who was hiding with my wife and daughter drive them to a nearby supermarket where we are reunited. Seeing them safe fills me with gratitude and gladness. The smaller children are thrilled to see their mother. Their tears end but, traumatized, they are not smiling.
We hear on the news that no one has been injured; eventually we learn that the shooter is dead. We go back to the parking lot—police all around us—to retrieve my wife’s car, and we return home in safety.
As a boy of about nine I watched a police officer murdered right in front of me in Miami Beach. It was April 1, April Fool’s Day, which ever since has been a day of trauma for me. I even took my wife and children to the spot where he died. I shall never forget the sound of that gunshot .
And now I am again traumatized by a shooting.
How many more will die before America finally wakes up?
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi,” is married with nine children. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley.