Pulling Together

The week of Aug. 10 was a horrifying and difficult one for our Jewish community. The unexpected attack on the North Valley Jewish Community Center, an important link in the system of communal services provided by the Jewish Federation of Los Angeles has, we are certain, left all of us feeling shaken and more vulnerable. The bright spot in an otherwise sad and potentially tragic week has been the communal response to the violence at the quiet JCC on Rinaldi Street in Granada Hills.

Last Friday, we stood in a dusty field in the rear of the North Valley Jewish Community Center with three hundred members of the Center and other residents of the neighborhood. The Jewish Centers Association had organized a small “family” Shabbat service for those most directly impacted by the horrific incident.

As the sun set on the field, euphemistically called the “back forty” by the JCC members, we saw many familiar faces in the crowd. They were faces almost continuously on the scene since the attack commenced on a quiet Tuesday morning on August 10. They were the faces of the children who were the targets of this hate crime. They were the faces of the teens who are counselors at the camp. They were the faces of the staff at the preschool at this communal location. They were the faces of the senior professionals of our Jewish Centers Association who since the shooting had been in an almost non-stop process of trying to ensure the safety of their charges, and later, of bringing back normalcy after what no one could ever have imagined occurred in Los Angeles.

They were the faces of the public officials: the policemen, firemen and emergency personnel, who had converged on Granada Hills as the shooting ended. They were the faces of the minister of the neighboring Episcopal church and the rabbi of the synagogue who shares the facility immediately next door, which had opened its doors, first, as a place of sanctuary and later for a meeting held to bring some meaning to this otherwise meaningless violence. They were the faces of the media, local, national and international who had been “on site” since the reports of a shooting had leapt into our public consciousness earlier in the week. And, finally, they were the faces of the representatives of the Jewish Federation, the Jewish Family Services, the Board of Rabbis and other communal bodies who had been quietly working behind the scenes to stabilize the situation and bring assistance to all those in need.

On Tuesday morning, within minutes of the shooting, a shaken Jeff Rouss, executive vice president of the Jewish Centers Association, had come down the hall to the Federation offices to quietly and confidentially inform us that an “incident” had occurred at the North Valley JCC. Within minutes, frantic staff of the North Valley Center were on the phone to our offices at 5700 Wilshire Boulevard, reporting the shooting.

None of us was sure how many people were involved, how many were injured and even whether the gunman was still on site, but it made no difference in our response. While JCC staff spoke on cell phones to the Center in Granada Hills, the Jewish community system created by our Jewish Federation and supported by your United Jewish Fund sprang into action. It was, once again, a tribute to the fact that we are well organized, that a multi-pronged and comprehensive effort to assist the children, their families and the staff at the North Valley Center facility was underway.

Senior JCC and Federation staff jumped into cars and made the long drive along the freeways to Rinaldi and Hayvenhurst. Within minutes of the reported attack, the Jewish Family Service of Los Angeles sent social work staff to the site. The Board of Rabbis reached out to its member rabbis and dispatched chaplains to the local hospitals where the injured had been taken in order to give spiritual support to them and their families. The representatives of the Jewish Community Relations Committee and the senior administrative staff of the Federation were in rapid communication with the municipal agencies to coordinate our communal response in the areas of security and logistical support. The communications function of the Jewish Federation and the Jewish Community Centers worked together to gather often conflicting data. In the chaos which prevailed, they created a coherent message which would inform and, to the extent possible, assure the public-Jewish and non-Jewish-about the realities, while eliminating the falsehoods and misinformation which were quickly rampant.

When Federation staff reached the North Valley JCC, together with the executive vice president of the JCCA, less than an hour later, the scene was one of intense activity. The North Valley JCC was cordoned off, SWAT teams were in the driveway with guns trained on the building. No one knew who had committed this atrocity. No one knew his motives or even his whereabouts. Yet that did not prevent lots of suppositions and public pronouncements from being made by self-appointed spokespeople with microphones put into their faces.

In situations of this sort, correct information becomes essential. It is the role of responsible communal bodies like our Jewish Federation and JCCA to inform and calm the public. Was it a hate crime, or not? At that juncture, no one knew. The important issue was getting traumatized children who had been under attack reunited with frantic parents. It was essential to determine that each one of the children in the camp was accounted for and out of harm’s way.

The warmth and genuine concern of our communal staff for the welfare of everyone was overwhelming. Young teens who act as counselors were embraced by senior JCC staff. Caseworkers from the Jewish Family Service sat and quietly assured children and adults that they were secure. Parents held their small children in bear hug embraces. It was a surreal scene and one which we can all hope never to see repeated.

On Thursday night, we were back at the North Valley JCC or, more specifically, at the site of the Episcopal church and Temple Beth Torah which share premises next door. The sanctuary was the site of a group meeting of the families whose children were at the North Valley JCC when the violence began. Outside and inside were dozens of children. Some were running around playing and others were more taciturn, clinging to their still anxious parents. Below a large crucifix in the church sanctuary, a group of mental health professionals, including the staff of the Jewish Family Service as well as others from the police and fire departments, talked to and with the audience. Materials on helping children after a disaster and children’s response to trauma were distributed. The discussion focused on talking about what had occurred, reassuring the child and giving the children all of the physical and emotional support necessary.

The crowd used the meeting to learn, to dialogue, and as a therapeutic opportunity, to release pent up emotion. Although some in attendance expressed anger, the majority of the crowd was generally appreciative that, as awful as the physical and emotional trauma had been, more damage hadn’t been done. They gave the caseworkers of Jewish Family Service a loud round of applause. And they warmly acknowledged the extraordinary bravery of the JCC staff at the time of the shooting. Finally, they acknowledged loudly the work of the executive staff of the JCC and, specifically, its assistant executive director who had tirelessly worked to stabilize a seemingly chaotic situation, despite the fact that she herself had a child at the North Valley JCC. When we left that evening, we were very proud of the exceptional response of our communal staff at a time of anguish.

The following Sunday, we sat on a stage at California State University at Northridge. There were almost 100 individuals on that stage. Among the assemblage was the U.S. Attorney General, the Governor of California, the Mayor of Los Angeles, members of the U.S. Congress, members of the State Legislature and the County Board of Supervisors.

The group gathered was a large cross-section of the diversity which is the Los Angeles community. There were African Americans, Latino and Asian Americans. They were Christians, Muslims and Jews. They included a Filipino minister who was there to eulogize Joseph Ileto, the U.S. Postal worker senselessly murdered by the white supremacist who attacked the North Valley JCC.

Behind the assembled dignitaries, sat an even more important group. In blue T-shirts sat the counselors from the North Valley JCC and at the appointed time, they got up to lead the crowd in song. The afternoon was a perfect blend of speeches, prayer and song. It saluted the heroes of the week of August 10, expressed condolences to the Ileto family and offered words of good wishes to the slowly recovering adults and children injured in the attack.

But the one image which will remain with us was the sight of parents approaching the stage full of singing camp counselors — parents, some of whom we had seen at the group meeting at the church on the previous Thursday. Parents, who were lovingly and trustingly handing their children up onto the stage. The children sat in the arms of the very counselors who had risked their lives to save them on Tuesday, August 10. It was a moving tribute.

While we watched the singing, one could only be struck by the resilience of our Jewish community. We were also struck by the essence of what our Jewish Federation is here to represent: a vibrant and strong Los Angeles Jewish community, a community that once again had met and overcome a trauma. We are a community whose institutions react compassionately and quickly. We are Jewish service agencies which offer their human caring in the face of both daily and abnormal situations. And, finally, we are Jewish residents of Los Angeles, young and old, who will move forward — fearlessly — into the next millennium.

Lionel Bell is Chairman of the Board of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles and John R. Fishel is executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. Visit the Jewish Federation’s website at http://www.jewishla.com