December 11, 2018

Jewish and Israeli communities respond to Las Vegas attack with aid, call for action

UPDATE 10:21 A.M. OCT. 4: The five missing Israelis mentioned below in the story “are safe and accounted for,” Anna Rubin, director of media affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles, told the Journal.

The Oct. 1 mass shooting at a country music festival in Las Vegas, which left at least 59 people dead and 527 wounded, was “obviously not just about the Jewish community,” Jewish Federation of Las Vegas President and CEO Todd Polikoff said hours after the attack.

The Federation, nevertheless, was committed to assisting those affected by what many are calling the deadliest shooting in modern American history, he said.

“I don’t think there is any part of this community that is not feeling the impact of these events. We’re constantly looking at how we can help the whole community, Jewish and non-Jewish, and deal with what transpired,” Polikoff said in a phone interview the day after the shooting.

Those efforts have been multi-faceted.

“Right now it’s information-gathering. We’re trying to reach out to members of the community, various synagogues and anyone in our base to let us know that everyone is safe that they know of and if they’re not, what’s the situation.”

He added that as of that morning he did not know if anyone in the Jewish community had been injured or killed, but there were 22,000 people at the concert, “and we know members of the Jewish community go to these festivals,” he said.

Rabbi Levi Harlig of Chabad of Southern Nevada said he had spent time with the family of one Jewish victim at Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center, where 14 patients had died as late Oct. 2. The Route 91 Harvest music festival began Sept. 29 and concluded on Oct. 1.

He said he visited the hospital after hearing about a Jewish woman from Orange County whose husband had dropped her off at the concert, where she was shot in the neck.

“Thank God [her injury] does not seem to be life threatening,” Harlig told the Journal.

There are an estimated 70,000 Jewish people living in Nevada, with the majority residing in Las Vegas, according to Polikoff.

The Federation leader said the organization has been in contact with the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department.

“We’re trying to work with Metro as best as we can,” Polikoff said. “They have a hotline for people who are looking for family members; we’re trying to drive people to the blood services in town because blood services are greatly needed and we’re trying to be a community partner the best we can.”

The authorities said the gunman, Stephen Paddock, fired his weapon from a room on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay hotel, overlooking the concert, during the performance of headliner Jason Aldean. Paddock began firing at the crowd gathered at the Las Vegas Village and Festival Grounds at 10:08 p.m., the authorities said.

The rapid gunfire sent concertgoers running for their lives while others crouched on the ground and held each other.

As the shooting continued for several minutes, a SWAT team closed in on the shooter’s location. The Clark County Sheriff Joseph Lombardo of the police department, said Paddock committed suicide after SWAT pinned him down. ISIS – or Islamic State – claimed responsibility for the attack. Law enforcement, however, said the shooter acted alone.

Polikoff said he was asleep when his Apple Watch buzzed at 1 a.m. with a news notification about the incident. He thought it was his watch alerting him to wake up, as it does every morning at 5 a.m. for the gym. The news – that 20 people had been killed – stunned him. By the time he got in his car to drive to work, the number had risen to more than 50.

Various members of the Federation staff left the office to donate blood and found long lines, “100 people deep,” he said.

Noa Peri-Jensch, regional director of the Israeli American Council in Las Vegas, said her organization was encouraging people to assist those donating blood.

“The blood centers are packed with donors, so we have decided that instead of blood, we should assist those who are standing in lines to donate blood,” she said. “Members of the Israeli community went out in a big truck to hand out water and food to those in line at the blood centers.”

Anna Rubin, director of media affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles, which serves the entire region of the southwest United States, including Nevada, told the Journal on Oct. 2 that five Israelis were unaccounted for in the wake of the attack.

“We are monitoring the situation,” Rubin said, explaining that the consulate was notified by the missing individuals’ families. Additional information on the missing Israelis, whose parents are in Israel, was not immediately available. 

Julie Martinez, a mother of two girls, has lived in Las Vegas for eight years. The daughter of an Israeli mother and an American father, Martinez was supposed to go to the concert with a friend but changed her mind at the last minute. Her friend, however, attended.

“My friend went there with her four-year-old daughter. She called me crying and in shock after she ran from the concert area to the Tropicana hotel,” Martinez said. “That’s how I found out what had happened. They stayed there for five hours until the police let them go back home. The streets were completely empty. No one was allowed to leave. Many people who attended the concert ran as well to the Tropicana. People gave them drinks and helped them out. Every body was so helpful, she told me.”

In the aftermath of the shooting, Jewish organizations including the Union of Reform Judaism, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and Los Angeles social justice-oriented congregation IKAR renewed a call for the enactment of tighter gun control legislation.

“There is so much we don’t know yet about this shooting. What does seem clear is that the gunman used at least one fully automatic assault weapon among the 17 other weapons, including rifles with scopes, that police found in his hotel room. These are weapons of war, easily accessible in America,” IKAR Rabbi Sharon Brous said on Oct. 2 in a statement titled “Enough With Your Thoughts and Prayers. People are Dying.”

ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt echoed Brous’ call for gun control.

“We firmly believe that one way to limit the power of extremists and reduce violence in our communities is to enact tough, effective gun violence prevention measures,” Greenblatt said.

Polikoff, meanwhile, said at this early juncture, he did not want to focus on the politics of the situation.

“One thing I’m not listening to is anyone who wants to turn this into any sort of political commentary. I don’t think this is the time or place [to say] ‘This wouldn’t have happened if so and so were in office.’ “ he said. “We have to worry about the people who were hurt and the families who lost loved ones at this time. I will let everyone else discuss the politics of what they want to discuss. I will focus on people who need help.”

Harlig, the Chabad rabbi, said the shooting shook him up.

“You hear stories about New York, Florida, overseas, and all of a sudden this is our hometown, so it is frightening, but I think the holiday of our rejoicing is coming up, Sukkot, so we will have a double amount of strength to counter the darkness,” he said.   

Harlig expressed confidence that life in Vegas will soon – perhaps too quickly – return to normal.

“Unfortunately people get caught up with the excitement and the glamour here and are quick to forget. It might take a day or two but I think it will go back to normal,” he said. “Let’s wait for the dust to settle.”

Ayala Or-El, contributing writer, contributed to this report