The Jews of San Diego gathered in El Camino Memorial Park in Sorrento Valley on Sunday to mourn the loss of Dr. Benjamin Harouni, 28, a young dentist and a dedicated member of the Jewish community.

San Diego, even more so than other parts of southern California, is usually blessed with blue, sun-filled skies. But on the day Harouni was laid to rest, the heavens opened up and rain poured down as some 600 people gathered to say their last goodbyes.

The final moments of Harouni’s life were at his practice, when he was murdered by Mohammad Abdulkareem, a disgruntled former patient, who also shot and wounded two other people in the building.

Speaking in court on March 5, Deputy District Attorney John Philpott said that “at this juncture, there does not seem to be a motivation that would one of hatred toward any … religion,” but that investigators were continuing to “explore all evidence that may be leading to motives of what happened in this particular situation.”

Harouni was born into a Persian-Jewish family and grew up in Sacramento, Calif., where the family grew close to Rabbi Mendy and Dinie Cohen, co-directors of Chabad-Lubavitch of Sacramento.

“Benjamin was always a thoughtful, happy child,” recalls Dinie Cohen. “He was exceptionally bright, and always wanted to help. He just had good energy around him all the time.”

The family, parents Jack and Hilda Harouni together with Benjamin and his two brothers, moved to San Diego about five years ago, where they joined the Chabad of Downtown San Diego community.

“When Benjamin was away in dental school, he’d come back for the Jewish holidays, sit next to his father in synagogue and pray,” says Rabbi Zalman Carlebach, co-director of Chabad of Downtown San Diego. “During breaks he’d play with the younger children, he was very much like the older brother here.”

Harouni had just moved back into the downtown neighborhood in September to be closer to his parents and community.

“He was just getting himself settled,” says Carlebach. “This has shocked the entire community.”

Devoted to Others

Following in the footsteps of his father, also a dentist, Harouni went to dental school with the goal of improving the lives of others. Feeling it was his duty to give back since he was given so much, upon graduating the young dentist made a point of specifically catering to less affluent segments of the community.

The website for Harouni’s practice—which he ran together with his father—described medicine as having been Benjamin’s “lifelong passion” and that he loved to get to know his patients and educate them about their health.

Knowing the family, Cohen, from Sacramento, is not surprised that Benjamin devoted his life to others. “They were very respected and beloved by our community,” she says. “Everybody appreciated and valued them. They are a family of integrity, warmth, kindness and sophistication. Just wonderful people who really valued Yiddishkeit.”

The family often attended Chabad events there and frequently came to their house for Shabbat meals, over time growing closer to Jewish observance. Their move to San Diego was in part to live within a larger Jewish community.

For his part, as Benjamin’s education took him away from home, he always sought out Chabad centers near him, forming an especially deep bond with Rabbi Dov and Runya Wagner, directors of the Rohr Chabad at the University of Southern California.

“Whenever I saw him, he’d always be committing to doing more in terms of his Jewish life,” recalls Rabbi Carlebach. “He was always looking to grow in his Yiddishkeit.”

Upon graduating from dental school, Benjamin made a point to cater to less affluent segments of the community. - Photo: The Harouni Family
Upon graduating from dental school, Benjamin made a point to cater to less affluent segments of the community.
Photo: The Harouni Family

Shock and Good Deeds

Reaction to Harouni’s murder came from all corners of the community, and from all parts of Benjamin’s life, cut down too short.

“Words can’t describe my love that I had for you,” said his younger brother, Jake. “Although selfishly I wish you were still here, I know your soul was too big to be controlled by this physical world. You have a greater mission that you need to fulfill, and it’s hard for us to comprehend that.”

Jake described Benjamin as a beacon of selflessness who always put “everyone else ahead of himself.”

Among the figures from Harouni’s life who came forward to honor him were the dean of his alma mater, the University of the Pacific’s Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry, Nader Nadershahi.

Nadershai wrote in a letter read at the funeral that Harouni’s “kindness and compassion touched and improved many lives.”

“Everybody has been affected by this,” notes Rabbi Carlebach, “one member of our community was at Harouni’s dentist office just a little while before this attack took place, so you see how close-knit a place this is.”

Especially impacted, says Carlebach, have been young Jewish professionals around Benjamin’s age—men and women shocked at the brutal end of a young life bursting with potential.

“One young Jew here does not even know Benjamin, but has been coming to shul every day to put on tefillin in his honor,” the rabbi explains. “Benjamin cannot lay tefillin with his arm anymore, people want to do it in his place.”

Observing the family during the traditional shiva mourning period, Carlebach says he sees the solace they receive from hearing of people, especially young people, moved to do mitzvahs in their son’s memory.

Investigation Goes On

As of yet, local law-enforcement has insisted that Harouni’s murder was not antisemitic in nature. But many close to him believe that Islamic-inspired antisemitism is ultimately the cause of their young friend’s shocking death.

“Those saying this was not a hate crime need to rethink what they define as hate,” Jake Harouni wrote in an Instagram post. “My brother was murdered in cold blood, yet the iInternet and media want to spin the narrative around and blame this on the murderer being deranged,”. “You can be both deranged AND have hate in your heart.”

As such, the family created a crowdfunding campaign to open a foundation called Hearts Over Hate as a method to combat mounting calls for violence and discrimination.

“It starts with us first addressing the fact that there is still lots of hate in this world … ,” Jake continued in his social media post. “As a Persian-Jewish American, I have always felt so scared and vulnerable during these times of hatred. Now that it is at my front door, it feels much more real and urgent. Ben couldn’t leave us without leaving a legacy. That’s just who he was.”

In addition to the funeral, Jake Harouni also was one of the some 60 people who attended a candlelight vigil honoring his brother on Sunday night where many expressed skepticism around law enforcement’s position on Harouni’s murder.

Among those voices was El Cajon Mayor Bill Wells, who promised to conduct a thorough

investigation into the matter. “It is more concerning that the person that was killed was Jewish because, as everyone knows, we’ve seen a huge increase in the number of people who have been involved in violence and have been targeted over the past 3-4 months,” he said.

Harouni’s assailant, Abdulkareem, escaped the scene in a rented pickup truck and was apprehended a few hours after he allegedly killed Harouni.

“They were a family of three boys,” Dinie Cohen, the Chabad rebbetzin from Sacramento, laments. “Now you look at them and you see that one is missing, and your heart breaks. It’s beyond tragic.”