Mothers of two children shot at Jewish center work for gun control and lend support to May 14 rally.
After gun violence hit close to home, two San Fernando Valley mothers found themselves helping to organize a march in Washington to lobby for stronger weapons laws. In the second of two stories on motherhood and activism, these women, whose children were shot last summer at the North Valley Jewish Community Center, explain why they are involved in the Million Mom March, a grass-roots effort that borrows many tactics from Mothers Against Drunk Driving and hopes to match its success. In the first story Sunday, Southern California Living examined how MADD overcame problems to become a potent model for political action.
Loren Lieb and Donna Finkelstein belonged to the same Northridge synagogue for years but didn’t know each other until a few months ago. Now they talk daily, see each other at least once a week and are planning a Mother’s Day trip together.
Theirs is a friendship born of terror and nurtured by a shared desire to make the world a little safer.
Their bond is the shooting last summer at the North Valley Jewish Community Center, the one many people remember as a result of images of a daisy chain of preschoolers being led from harm by police officers with shotguns. The pictures shocked a nation and inspired a planned Mother’s Day march in Washington, D.C., to demand tighter restrictions on guns.
Lieb and Finkelstein know the shooting as a hate-inspired rampage that left the youngest child of each wounded--a tragic act that added gun control activism to their already busy lives and thrust them into one of the nation’s most volatile public battles.
“It happened to our kids. But it could happen anywhere, any time,” said Lieb, 44.
“The notoriety of this case got to the heart and soul of every human being,” said Finkelstein, 47. “If we do nothing, it will happen again.”
On Aug. 10, 1999, it happened at the North Valley JCC. At 10:45 a.m., a group of campers and a counselor were coming into the center from what they call the “back 40" play yard when the gunman walked in the front door and began firing with a Norinco Model 320, a 9-millimeter, semiautomatic, short-barreled rifle.
The receptionist, a teenage counselor and three children were injured before the gunman fled. Later, he fatally shot a letter carrier in Chatsworth with a second gun, a Glock 9-millimeter, semiautomatic handgun. Despite a history of mental illness, an assault conviction and an affiliation with hate groups, the man accused in the rampage came to Los Angeles from Washington state well-armed. Police found a cache of weapons, ammunition and body armor in vehicles allegedly used by self-avowed racist Buford O. Furrow, who could face the death penalty in a pending federal trial.
The counselor was Finkelstein’s daughter, Mindy. She was walking down a hall carrying a basket of activity supplies when the gunman fired her way, striking her twice in the legs. Mindy, then 16, ran to a nearby classroom, opened the door and yelled to the children to get out. Then, losing blood quickly, she collapsed.
Donna Finkelstein, a guidance counselor at Monroe High School in North Hills, was at work when she got a telephone call. It was the lead trauma nurse at the hospital, who also happens to be a friend.
“ ‘Donna, this is Beth. I’m at Holy Cross. Mindy’s been shot, but she’s going to be OK,’ ” Finkelstein recalled the nurse saying.
Finkelstein called her husband and had a friend drive her to the hospital. She was fumbling to find a news report on the radio when they passed the JCC and saw the police and helicopters. “I knew it was big. I knew.”
For Lieb, at work downtown, the first hint of trouble was a midmorning page from her husband. She answered his page with a call, then turned to her colleagues at the Los Angeles County Department of Health, where she is an epidemiologist, and said, “I’m sorry. I have to go. There’s someone with a gun at my kids’ day camp.” Before she could get out of the building, her husband called with more news: Children had been shot.
As a co-worker drove, Lieb listened to radio reports. “They said 6- and 8-year-old boys had been shot--the ages of my kids. . . . It was a long ride. It was a very long drive.”
When the shooting started, Lieb’s older son, Seth Stepakoff, had been on a bus with some other kids outside the JCC, ready to leave for a field trip. The driver took them to a nearby park for safety.
Upon arriving, Lieb pushed her way through the crowd to the police line surrounding the JCC where a woman told her one of the injured kids might have been named Josh. “Then I heard them calling his name over a bullhorn. . . . I ran in. I just remember this paramedic grabbing me and saying, ‘It’s OK.’ ”
The paramedic put Lieb in an ambulance that whisked her to Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in nearby Mission Hills. Her son, Joshua Stepakoff, then 6, had been shot twice, in his backside and in the lower part of his left leg, which was broken by the impact.
Physically, Joshua and Mindy have recovered, but they still are dealing with emotional trauma. Mindy did not resume her job as a counselor, but she did visit the site. Within a week, Joshua was back at camp, where kids signed his leg cast. He soon found a pal in James Zidell, another 6-year-old injured in the shooting.
“Joshua and James became close friends because they both went back to camp on crutches. They were inseparable,” Lieb said. “Their chairs had to be touching. They bonded.”
Finding a Cause
While Lieb and Finkelstein were tending to their children on the night of the shooting, a Short Hills, N.J., mother watched a “Nightline” report, listening to a Canadian police official talk about that country’s stricter gun laws. She also saw the JCC campers being led by uniformed police officers with guns drawn--and a march was born. A week later, Donna Dees-Thomases applied for a permit to march in Washington on May 14.
“That daisy chain just did it for me. Think about what those kids saw. Their world has changed forever [and that of] the kids who were injured,” she said. “I thought, ‘Why haven’t we done anything?’ ”
Gail Powers, the mother of a then-4-year-old camper who was not physically injured in the shooting, heard about Dees-Thomases’ Million Mom March, signed on as the regional coordinator for California, Arizona and Nevada, and began holding meetings every other week.
Hundreds of people like Powers are organizing local chapters in 46 states with a goal of getting at least 50,000 people to the Washington demonstration. The Valley group is about halfway toward its goal of raising $15,000 to defray travel expenses for marchers.
Powers said she believes 200 to 400 Californians will make the trip. Rosie O’Donnell, television talk show host and a mom, has signed on as emcee of the march. Simultaneous rallies are being planned in 30 cities around the country, including Los Angeles.
Organizers say they are happy with the interest they’ve raised. The Million Mom March’s Web site is averaging 75,000 hits a day, and the national office has received up to 4,500 calls in a day, said spokeswoman Judy Slotnik.
Early on, Powers had hoped mothers of some of the JCC victims would participate but felt awkward about asking. But within two months, Lieb and Finkelstein asked her how they could help.
“They said, ‘We’d like to join you in the march,’ ” lending the movement an important voice, Powers said. “When you say, ‘My child was shot at the JCC,’ people listen.”
The San Fernando Valley group, usually about 30 women, meets in the multipurpose room of the Jewish Community Center off the main lobby, where indentations in the carpet trace the course the bullets took across the floor. A metal dedication plaque outside one of the classrooms shows a dent. Those are the only signs of August’s mayhem.
In addition to attending the meetings, Lieb and Finkelstein have written to friends and organizations encouraging their support and participation in the march.
Their letters describe the march’s goals: the enactment of federal laws requiring cooling-off periods and background checks for all gun purchases, licensing of handgun owners and registration of all handguns, safety locks for all handguns, limits on handgun purchases to one per month and stricter enforcement of gun laws. And they can rattle off the reported toll of gun violence, such as 12 children killed each day.
As the gun-control debate gains prominence in the presidential election year, some aspects of the issue already have reached wide consensus. Several polls have found roughly three-quarters of Americans favor registration of handguns, which are estimated to number 65 million.
“It’s sick, and it’s sad, and it’s unfortunate. But I think the timing is right for this. People are just reeling from the news you hear every day. I feel like maybe we do have an opportunity to really make a difference and really change something,” Lieb said.
One morning in late February, the two women were attending the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors meeting to encourage members to support the march when it was announced that 6-year-old Kayla Rolland had died from wounds she sustained when a first-grade classmate shot her with a gun he found loaded under a bed at his Michigan home.
“Everybody just sat there with tears. It’s the kind of thing that you hear and say, ‘Oh, my God,’ ” Lieb said. “We can’t just throw up our hands and say it’s an insurmountable problem. We have to address it.”
Although a variety of gun control groups have been active since the mid-1970s, the mothers represent a new militia on a political landscape so far dominated by the National Rifle Assn.
"[The mothers] are not well-heeled Washington lobbyists. This is the first time there will be any kind of mass activity on behalf of stronger gun laws on a national scale,” said Robert J. Spitzer, a professor at State University of New York College at Cortland, an expert on gun control and the author of several books, including “The Politics of Gun Control.”
“It’s a different kind of political action than we’ve seen on gun control so far. From that perspective, it’s important.”
The Million Mom March is the latest grass-roots campaign with tactics mirroring those pioneered during the last two decades by Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which has helped reduce alcohol-related traffic fatalities 40% over the same period. It remains to be seen whether the Million Mom March can impact gun deaths in the United States, put at 32,436 in 1997 according to government statistics cited on the Web site.
Spitzer said he doubts the march will have immediate results in Congress, where a bill passed by the Senate that would require trigger locks and expand background checks at gun shows was stymied in the House. Whereas polls show more people than ever support stricter gun control, the voters for whom gun issues are a controlling factor at the ballot box tend to be NRA members, gun owners and their advocates, he said.
Over the next two to 10 years, however, Spitzer said he expects gun laws to change. The influence of the mother-driven campaign on that evolution depends on if and how well they are able to maintain their organization beyond a single demonstration, he said.
“A group like MADD was effective through sustained activity,” Spitzer said.
While the exact nature of the campaign has yet to be worked out, march organizers are planning to remain a part of the ongoing debate over guns, Slotnik said. March organizers already have reached out to a handful of well-established groups with a long history of gun-control advocacy.
“The Million Mom March is not the end all, be all. This will continue,” Slotnik said. “The march is really a kickoff to some sort of movement toward common sense gun policy legislation. So it is a longer-term grass-roots movement.”
Lieb and Finkelstein recognize that they are in a unique position to focus attention on gun control. And they are using it. Staffing an information booth at the Topanga Mall in Woodland Hills one Sunday in February, they were having trouble getting shoppers to listen until they described their own stories.
“I say, ‘Well, my son was shot last summer at the Jewish Community Center.’ Then they say, ‘Oh, my God.’ And their whole frame of reference changes,” Lieb said.
“I don’t like to do that; it seems a little exploitative. But you get people’s attention by doing that.”
Both women feel like unlikely activists. Lieb has never marched. The first and only march Finkelstein participated in was in Washington against the Vietnam War in 1970 or ’71--she can’t remember. This time, daughters Mindy, now 17, and Jody, 21, will join her. Lieb is bringing her family as well.
“I see my children are proud of what I’m doing,” Finkelstein said, “not because I’m saying, ‘Oh, gee, we should do something about gun control.’ But I’m actually doing something about it. That’s also true for the kids at my school.”
Lieb and Joshua have talked often about guns. He came home from religious school one day with a picture he drew in response to a teacher’s question about what each student could do to make a difference in the world. The drawing featured five stick figures that Joshua said represented himself, his father, mother, brother and Hillary Rodham Clinton--whom he’d met in the wake of the shooting--all marching against guns.
That picture helps ease the pang of mommy guilt that Lieb feels when, after a day at work, she goes to a march meeting before heading home to her family.
“I have to feel now that when I kiss my kids goodbye in the morning that I’m going to see them at night,” she said, choking back tears.
Finding a Friend
In each other, Lieb and Finkelstein found a friend to share the hurt and to make sense of the confusion that followed the shooting--and to help in the healing.
“We’re willing sounding boards for each other,” Lieb said. “I have to keep talking about it, and Donna is just the same.”
Reliving the ordeal is more than therapeutic, Finkelstein said, especially for the mothers, fathers and other relatives who were sequestered in hospitals and preoccupied with the recovery of their loved ones, seeing little news coverage.
“Everybody was disconnected, very disconnected,” Finkelstein said. As a result they are still on a quest for details. “Any time there are two or more people together, you start with ‘Where were you? How did you hear?’ . . . It doesn’t seem that a day goes by that I don’t find another piece of the puzzle.”
In the wake of the shooting, a series of events drew the victims’ families together. There was a Shabbat service attended by hundreds at their synagogue, Temple Ahavat Shalom, the Friday after the Tuesday shooting. On that Sunday, there was a community rally at Cal State Northridge, where U.S. Atty. Gen. Janet Reno spoke and met privately with the families. There was the first lady’s tour of the Jewish Community Center weeks later.
The families were overwhelmed by the show of support from the community, their colleagues, fellow temple congregants and strangers.
“We got letters from people from different churches [saying] this was a lone act and not the sentiment of the majority. It was unbelievable,” Finkelstein said. “Every three seconds the doorbell rang. There were balloons and flowers. We kind of moved out of the family room and let the friends come in.
“Their love and support made it easier to get through.”
As their lives began to return to a sort of normalcy, the two women reached out to each other. “In the beginning we talked about it because we didn’t understand why it was so important to us to talk to each other,” Finkelstein said. “The stuff about the shooting itself really only Loren can appreciate, and I can appreciate what she says [about] what we’re experiencing.”
The ordeal has, in a sense, fast-tracked their friendship.
“They appear to be lifelong friends. You would not know they were thrust together and found an accidental relationship. They are very close,” said Powers, the regional march coordinator.
In December, Finkelstein decided to bring the JCC shooting victims and their families together for a Hanukkah celebration at her home. The evening was part holiday dinner, part group therapy session, as everyone took turns telling their experiences.
“The parents really needed to release this,” Finkelstein said. “None of us had done this. We were each in our own little world. Everybody’s experience was different. It was amazing. That night was unbelievable for all of us.”
The evening also drew Lieb and Finkelstein closer. Neither woman could let the experience go. It called them to action.
“We wanted to do something,” Lieb said. “Here my kid was at summer camp, laughing and having fun, and he got shot. I just can’t go on with my life and do nothing. That can’t happen.”
The Million Mom March can be reached through https://www.millionmommarch.com or toll-free at (888) 989-MOMS (6667). Lisa Girion, who is the deputy editor of Southern California Living, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)
According to the Million Mom March Web site, https://www.millionmommarch.com:
* Americans own nearly 200 million guns, 65 million of which are handguns.
* Of the 32,436 U.S. gun deaths in 1997, 17,566 were suicides, 13,522 were homicides, 981 were unintentional or accidental shootings and 367 were of undetermined intent.
* U.S. children younger than 15 are 12 times more likely to die from gunfire than are children in 25 other industrialized countries combined.
* Gun homicide is the fourth leading cause of death for 10- to 14-year-olds and the second leading cause of death for 15- to 24-year-olds in the U.S.
* Guns were used in roughly 7 of 10 murders in the U.S. in 1997.
Sources: National Institute of Justice, National Center for Health Statistics, FBI and Centers for Disease Control