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‘Act of terrorism’: Witnesses recall man firing blanks inside SF synagogue

Isroel Berdichevskiy is seen during Shacharit, morning services, at the Schneerson Center. | Russell Yip for The Standard

When the shots rang out, Isroel Berdichevskiy had no idea what was happening.

The 83-year-old immigrant from Ukraine was about to step out of an evening study session at a local synagogue to make a phone call when he saw a man standing in the doorway.

“He was here before; I remembered his face,” Berdichevskiy told The Standard. “I wasn’t afraid of anything.”

Suddenly, there was a flash as the man opened fire. Berdichevskiy ducked, but then kept walking to the door. Other congregants appeared not even to flinch.

Their composure surprised many who later saw security footage of the incident after it was published by the media. 

Berdichevskiy said his own reaction was easy to explain: “Only when he left did I realize what happened.”

“He” is believed to be Dmitri Mishin.

Mishin, 51, was jailed Saturday for allegedly firing blanks inside the Schneerson Center, a storefront synagogue affiliated with the Chabad-Lubavitch Hasidic movement.

Reporting by The Standard later revealed that Mishin appears to have posted Nazi imagery on social media in the days leading up to and right after the shooting.

Now synagogue leaders say they want Mishin to face hate crime charges. They want to make sure he isn’t back out on the street anytime soon.

“What he’s not being charged with is an act of terrorism. What he’s not being charged with—as of today—is a hate crime,” rabbi Alon Chanukov said. “This person needs to be charged with the crime that he committed.”

District Attorney Brooke Jenkins is expected to decide by the end of Tuesday whether to formally charge Mishin.

Strange Incident

Security footage from that evening appears to show Mishin casually walking through the door, saying something to people sitting at a table and then reaching into his jacket for a pistol. After struggling to cock the gun, he fires about seven rounds in the air, waves goodbye and leaves.

Security footage shows the incident on Feb. 1, 2023. The first shot is fired in this video clip at 00:41. | Courtesy Schneerson Center

The shooter had “absolutely crazy eyes,” synagogue member Zakhar Baran said.

The shooting rattled a close-knit community in the Richmond that includes many Russian-speaking immigrant elders. But religious leaders were unsure what to make of it until social media posts emerged suggesting the gunman harbored antisemitic views—and even dressed like a Nazi.

Matthew Finkelstein prepares for Shacharit, morning services, at the Schneerson Center. | Russell Yip for The Standard

The strange events began days earlier when a Twitter profile in Mishin’s name posted a video of something burning on the sidewalk outside the Russian-speaking synagogue on the night of Jan. 29.

The account’s profile photo appears to show Mishin wearing a military uniform from Nazi Germany. The photo is just one of many posted on social media accounts in his name that appear to show him dressed in Nazi garb while posing near a cannon or holding a grenade.

Two days later, on Jan. 31, the same Twitter account posted antisemitic propaganda: a poster reading “Attention Jew!” in German and depicting a large hand pointing at a caricature of a Jewish person.

That same day, authorities say Mishin brandished a gun at the Balboa Theatre about 10 blocks up the street. An image the FBI shared while seeking the public’s help identifying the suspect appears to show Mishin raising the gun in the theater’s lobby.

The gunman fired shots inside the nearby Schneerson Center the next day.

A man takes part in morning Shacharit services at the Schneerson Center. | Russell Yip for The Standard

Mishin was arrested on Feb. 3 when an investigation led police to his doorstep in the same neighborhood where they say he brandished the gun.

Police booked him in jail shortly after the following midnight on suspicion of misdemeanor charges of brandishing an imitation firearm and disturbing a religious assembly. He also appears to have been arrested on suspicion of a felony religious terrorism charge.

Experts told The Standard that Mishin should at least be investigated for committing a hate crime—if not face formal hate crime charges at the state or federal level.

Jon Lewis, an extremism researcher at George Washington University, said the social media posts and the place that was targeted indicate the gunman was motivated by hate. 

“We need to call antisemitism what it is,” Lewis said. “If nothing else, it’s important that we call it out when we see it.”

Hate crime charges are the right way to do that, he told The Standard.

Shan Wu, a former federal prosecutor who served as counsel to U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, said the case seemed clearer cut than those against suspects in recent high-profile attacks against Asians. He said federal and local prosecutors could probably file hate crime charges against Mishin.

“You’re not always going to have social media postings or a manifesto saying ‘I’m going after Asians,’” Wu said. “But something like this is pretty no-brainer.”

Stephen Gilson, a former federal prosecutor who lectured on hate crimes at the University of Pittsburgh, said he would not be surprised if the DA filed a hate crime charge against Mishin. He also said that Mishin could potentially face a misdemeanor hate crime charge at the federal level.

However, he said investigators would likely need more evidence beyond the social media posts to convince a jury the incident was motivated by hate.

“Those social media posts appear to be a very strong indication of where the individual’s beliefs are at,” Gilson said. “But even doing something as simple as ensuring that the identity of the person they’ve arrested matches the identity of the person in those posts, that may not be as simple as just matching two names.”

Mishin will likely appear in court for the first time Wednesday, if Jenkins decides to charge him.

While police have not publicly identified Mishin as the alleged shooter, jail records, surveillance footage and social media posts indicate he is the suspect.

Synagogue Rattled

As congregants gathered at the Schneerson Center Tuesday morning, there were no obvious signs of the traumatic incident nearly a week earlier. Between prayers, worshippers joked with one another in Russian and English.

But the shooting left lingering concerns for the community and its safety.

A month ago, a homeless person hurled antisemitic slurs in Russian before attacking Berdichevskiy, who said he called 911.

“And what did the police do? They took him away, and no charges were brought,” said Chanukov.

Rabbi Alon Chanukov (left) speaks with Isroel Berdichevskiy (right) at the Schneerson Center. | Russell Yip for The Standard

He said that’s why the elderly congregants didn’t tell police right away: Since the shooter had not killed anyone, they did not expect a strong response.

“Maybe they’ll take him to jail for a day, then let him out,” he said. “And now this person will retaliate.”

Chanukov told The Standard that Rep. Nancy Pelosi had reached out to the synagogue president and that Mayor London Breed had left him a voicemail. Police have also placed a patrol car outside the synagogue on Shabbat, the weekly Sabbath when there are more worshippers, he said.

Still, the synagogue is also disappointed that the incident has not had a greater resonance in San Francisco.

“Because no one died, for a lot of people the response was: ‘Oh, it’s just this person who is mentally ill, and he needs help.’” Chanukov said. “And that’s been so painful to hear.”

He says there’s a feeling in the community that “when it’s Jews who are targeted, it’s minimized.” 

Here, congregant Matthew Finkelstein disagreed, saying all targeted communities feel that way. Still, he would like to see more solidarity, including from the Jewish community.

“I saw no new faces the day after [the shooting] and during our services,” he said. “And on Friday, on Shabbat, I saw hardly any new faces. And what that tells me is that, like, there’s a failure for the community to effect the real solidarity.”

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