November 20, 2019

Parents from JCC shooting offer advice on coping

After each shooting rampage, such as the one last week that took 26 lives at a Connecticut elementary school and the one at a Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills 13 years ago, the circle of victims reaches far beyond the wounded and the dead.

When the targets are children, parents must cope not only with their own grief and the trauma of their wounded child, but also with the frightening impact on brothers and sisters of the victims.

Such was the case when, on Aug. 10, 1999, Buford Furrow Jr., a white supremacist, walked into the North Valley Jewish Community Center and started spraying the school grounds with bullets. He wounded three boys, ages 5 and 6, a teenage girl and an adult staffer.

Bullets penetrated the hip and leg of Joshua Stepakoff, 6, son of Loren Lieb and Alan Stepakoff, as the boy was playing at the JCC.

When they arrived at the hospital, “At first we had no idea what to do,” Lieb recalled in a phone interview this week; a hospital counselor advised Lieb not to probe and prod Joshua with questions, but instead to take her cues from the boy.

Another piece of advice was to avoid, whenever possible, loud noises, such as from helicopters and sirens from emergency vehicles.

Long after the attack, Joshua showed signs of post-trauma distress. Every evening, he would check whether doors and windows were closed and locked in their home, and at night he insisted that all the lights stay on in his bedroom.

It took a few years until Joshua was ready to talk openly to his parents about his experience, finally telling them, “I have bad thoughts I can’t get out of my head.” He subsequently got help through professional counseling.

David and Richard Macales

Joshua’s brother, Seth — older by two years and always the more extroverted of the two — had problems of a different kind. With presents and all attention focused on Joshua, Seth was becoming jealous and resentful of his younger brother.

Joshua, now 19 and a college student, is fully recovered physically, but, his mother said, with news of new mass shootings, such as recent ones at a mall in Portland, Ore., and another at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., some of the old traumas are refueled.

“My advice to other parents would be to be supportive of your children, show that you love them, and always be ready to listen to them,” Lieb said.

Mindy Finkelstein, daughter of Donna and David Finkelstein, was 16 and on her first job as a summer counselor at the JCC when she was shot in the leg by Furrow.

As a teenager and as a girl, she reacted quite differently than did 6-year-old Joshua.

 “We talked constantly about what had happened, her emotions and her sense of safety,” Donna Finkelstein recalled. Mindy’s sister, Jodi — four years older — took part in the discussions, and the girls’ parents were careful to pay equal attention to both daughters.

To the Finkelstein family, it was obvious that the attack by a neo-Nazi was a hate crime directed specifically against Jews. One effect was that Jodi stopped wearing a Star of David that had always dangled from her neck.

Both Lieb and Donna Finkelstein are now active in the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence and Women Against Gun Violence.

 “One reason [for my support] is that I want to show my kids that I’m trying to protect them and make changes, rather than just sit at home,” Donna Finkelstein said.

Even for parents whose children escaped injury at the JCC shooting, memories of the day still haunt them and, for some, have triggered life changes.

Richard Macales was at his job at UCLA when his mother called to tell him of a radio report about the  shooting at the JCC. Macales’ 3 1/2-year-old son, David, was enrolled at the school.

While a colleague drove him on the 405 freeway from UCLA to Granada Hills, Macales, an Orthodox Jew, recited Tehillim, the Psalms of David, frequently offered in times of danger. Some 13 years later, when Macales heard of the Connecticut massacre, he offered up the same prayers.

After a frantic search, Macales found David, who had somehow struck out on his own and was sitting quietly on a curb.

At home, Macales and his then-wife, Beverly, had to cope not only with David’s problems, but also those of David’s younger brother, Aaron, and older siblings, Chava and Shmuel. What carried the family through, Macales said, was, first, their deep religious faith and, second, their long-discussed plan to make aliyah and settle in Israel.

After the JCC shooting, the Macales parents decided to turn the dream into reality, and a year later, in 2000, they moved the family to Jerusalem. During the intervening year, the parents kept the family discussions on concrete plans for the aliyah and on the new life awaiting them in Israel.

In Jerusalem, Richard Macales became a feature writer for The Jerusalem Post and currently serves as a member of the selection committee for the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in Netanya.

What riles him most are the preachings by some religious leaders of various faiths that illness, misfortune or disasters are somehow “divine retribution” for shortcomings or offenses committed by the affected individual or his community.

“I emphasize to my children that a tragedy should not be looked upon as something that is deserved,” he said, and doing so “is the height of cruelty.”

While Israel has not experienced mass shootings of the sort that have occurred in the United States, war or terrorist attacks are always a possibility in Israel.

Macales said he himself has come under attack by Palestinian militants during the intifada, while missiles fired from Gaza flew over his synagogue in recent months. David is now grown and preparing to join an elite army combat unit.

Nevertheless, Macales believes Americans can learn from Israelis how to handle such threats of violence.

“After each attack, we clean up the damage as fast as possible,” he said. “We also encourage people to quickly return to a normal routine. For instance, after leaving a bomb shelter, to go shopping or see a movie.”