August 10, 1999. It was a day that will never be forgotten. One man was killed. Five people - including three children - were badly injured. Six innocent human beings became targets of a gutless killer's hatred, and when that happened, an entire community was shaken to its core. What a long, strange trip it's been since the shooting at the North Valley Jewish Community Center and the murder of mail carrier Joseph Ileto on a Tuesday morning one year ago. For weeks, even months, people spoke of little else.
Rallies were held, security companies consulted, parents prayed for their own and others' children, congregations hosted speakers on hate crimes and Angelenos crossed religious and racial boundaries to mobilize for peace. Hate crime legislation was drafted, then languished in committee, while in May hundreds of thousands of moms marched in Washington, D.C., for gun control in the hope that they could keep weapons out of the hands of other gunmen intent on wreaking mayhem in their cities and towns. For many of the key figures closest to the events of last August, the decision has been to focus on the future. Some, like receptionist Isabelle Shalometh, declined to be interviewed for this story, although their private strength and fortitude have been praised by friends and co-workers. Others, like North Valley JCC director Michele Schipper, can speak about the incident in a professional capacity but are reluctant to share their personal feelings.
"What I can say is, we're still here, I'm still here. I'm still a part of this place and doing the kind of work I really love," Schipper said. "It was certainly a tragic incident, but we've continued to move forward. That's what we're all about."
Schipper said enrollment at the North Valley site's camp actually increased by 10 percent this summer. "About 90 percent of the camp staff returned, which is amazing when you think of the options out there for college and high school students," she said. "But they wanted to maintain the continuity they had when they were campers here."
Schipper confirmed that two of the wounded children, Joshua Stepakoff and James Zidell, returned to camp this year. Counselor Mindy Finkelstein, who was shot in the leg by alleged gunman Buford Furrow and will testify against him at his upcoming trial, is "around but chose not to return as a counselor," the director said.
As for Shalometh, she will retire this month after more than 25 years with the Jewish Community Centers. "Isabelle was such a trouper," Schipper said. "She came to visit several times before her wounds had even healed and then was back at her post. She had just been a tower of strength for the families. We will miss her, although we are happy for her in her next stage of life. She and her husband will be spending more time with their children and grandchildren, and that's what it's all about."
The North Valley Jewish Community Center will hold a private ceremony Aug. 12 to thank the people who supported the center in the aftermath of the shooting. Schipper said the center wanted to express its gratitude to the Granada Hills and greater Los Angeles communities and acknowledge the new relationships that have blossomed during the past year, such as that with Reverend Greg Frost at the Church of St. Andrew and St. Charles next door to the JCC. When the air conditioning in the center went out in June, the same day as the center's kindergarten graduation, Frost invited the families to hold the ceremony at the church.
It is in such relationships that the Jewish community in Los Angeles has found a new strength. Some changes, sadly, did not last; The sudden interest in security issues proved less intense as the day of the shooting receded, said Aaron Levinson, director of the Valley office of the Anti-Defamation League. "I would stop short of saying a lot has happened in the way of lasting effects, because there is still a lot of apathy," Levinson said. "We had security seminars within a week of the shooting that were standing room only, but a couple of months later the ADL planned one with a top-notch security company and had to cancel it for lack of interest. We need to remind people to maintain a moderate level of alertness, even on days when nothing dramatic happens."
A few changes, however, have endured. Security at all Jewish community centers and many other institutions remain in force, such as the metal detectors and additional security guards at the Bernard Milken Community Campus (housing not only the West Valley JCC but the Valley Alliance of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and associated agencies). Local synagogues have seen a rise in their security costs; nearly all Valley synagogues now employ at least one security guard.
"There's an awareness now that there are marginal people who potentially could be a threat to Jews and Jewish institutions," said Federation president John Fishel. "Although I would say this was an isolated incident, we need to recognize these issues must stay on the communal agenda. That is why we have the Federation, to represent the best interests of the community."
Another positive outcome of last year's incident has been a stronger relationship between Jewish institutions and local law enforcement.
"There have been new partnerships and friendships developed and old relationships renewed, not only in the North Valley but across the city," said Cmdr. David Kalish, spokesperson for the Los Angeles Police Department. "Historically, the police department has always tried to maintain a close relationship with the Jewish community, for example adding additional patrols around synagogues for the High Holidays, but this event brought us even closer together."
In addition, a new activism has taken hold in the community. Parents of children attending JCC camps took the fear of that terrible day and turned it into a powerful force for change, lobbying legislators for stronger gun laws and anti-hate crime legislation. Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Sherman Oaks) continues to call on his fellow representatives for passage of H.R. 1082, the Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 1999, which would broaden existing hate crimes legislation to include attacks made on the basis of religion, gender and sexual orientation. Current legislation deals only with attacks designed to prevent victims from exercising their federal constitutional rights.
"I debated [Arkansas] Rep. Asa Hutchinson on this law. His argument is a crime is a crime is a crime and should be treated as such," Sherman said. "What he failed to note is the greater harm you commit, the greater the penalty - and state of mind is as important in determining the penalty as the act itself. Hate crimes involve an additional layer of harm, because the victims are not just the person but society as a whole. We had parents afraid to send their children to Jewish day camps as a result of what Furrow did." Sherman is one of the organizers of the Unity Over Hate rally to be held Sunday, Aug. 13 (see box, page 12). He came up with the idea after a meeting earlier this year in Washington with Eleanor Kadish, mother of the boy most severely injured in the NVJCC attack. "We hope to make this rally part of the healing process for the community and for individuals, " he said. "I think it's important for people like the Kadishes and the Iletos to see that we care and that we are trying to build a society where this never happens again."
Rallies Against Hate
Thurs., Aug. 10 CommUNITY Candlelight Vigil:
Sun., Aug. 13
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