Friday evening at Temple Ahavat Shalom, Rabbi Barry Lutz began Shabbat service with this meditation on the importance of memory as the congregation gathered on the eve of the tenth anniversary of the shootings at North Valley Jewish Community Center "to share the joys and comforts of coming together as a community."
There will be larger commemorative events on Monday -- the actual anniversary of the event -- with city officials, press coverage, and TV cameras, but Friday night's Shabbat service in Northridge felt intimate -- more like a gathering of extended family than a civic event.
In attendance were Mindy Finkelstein and Josh Stepakoff, two survivors of Buford Furrow's August 10, 1999 rampage. Furrow shot a total of six people that day, creating pain and outrage across the country, but here at Ahavat Shalom, the anguish was especially acute, because Josh and Mindy were members.
Recalled Ron Major, "I remember ten years ago, this congregation was packed, and Rabbi Brown stood up and said, 'Two of our children have been shot.' It was really emotional, because we look at all of the children of this congregation as our children."
Josh Stepakoff, five years old when he was shot and now a junior at Granada Hills High School, said, "When I was asked to speak here, I was told I was supposed to make it happy, upbeat, positive. They want to hear that I'm happy, I'm healthy, and I'm doing good. So, I'm happy, I'm healthy, and I'm doing good.
"In very single interview we give, we get the same question: 'after the shooting, were you scared to say you were Jewish?' And I think I speak for all of us when I say that after the shooting, we were all drawn more to Judaism. I'm proud to say that this temple alone, after the shooting, had over a thousand members here for Friday night services, and I think that's amazing."
Jerry Wayne, executive director of the North Valley Jewish Community Center, expressed a similar sentiment when I spoke to him last week: "The shooting brought our community together more strongly, not less."
Speaking with Wayne made me realize one of the strange ironies of Furrow's shooting spree: if Furrow's aim was to kill Jews, he could have picked a place that was a lot more Jewish than the North Valley Jewish Community Center. "Non-affiliated Jews won’t go to a synagogue, but will come to a community center, because they believe in the culture and traditions but not the religion. Culture, history, traditions as opposed to religion -- we sell that. The temples can sell what they sell, but we keep it as separate as possible," Wayne said.
Another strange fact about the shootings: although his targets were just about the most defenseless people one could imagine -- a group of kindergartners -- Furrow didn't manage to kill a single person at the NVJCC, even while packing a semi-automatic weapon. Clearly this is a blessing, but it also makes one wonder about Furrow's tortured state of mind. It's easy to imagine amidst the tangle of voices in Furrow's head, the demons of his mental illness and the rantings of his Aryan Nation brethren, there may have been another small voice breaking through, urging him not to aim for the heads or hearts of his targets, but their legs and feet. Mindy Finkelstien was shot in the leg. James Sidell was hit in the foot. Joshua Stepakoff was shot in the leg. Benjamin Kadish was shot in the lower abdomen and leg. All of the children survived their wounds, as did 68-year-old Isabelle Shalometh, the NVJCC receptionist. Furrow left the JCC and later fatally shot postal worker Joseph Ileto, and then the voices in his head told him it was time to turn himself in to police. It's impossible to know the workings of Furrow's damaged mind, but perhaps on some level even he comprehended the wrongness and futility of his actions.
Many speakers at the Shabbat service made reference to the recent shootings at a gay club in Tel Aviv, expressing compassion for their fellow hate crime victims in the Jewish homeland. The noting of this parallel further underscored the progressive, enlightened thinking that mingles freely with a rich consciousness of tradition and history throughout reform Judaism and at Ahavat Shalom, which means "Love of Peace."
Josh and Mindy also announced that they are organizing a 5K/10K Run "and kids walk, and stroller push, and wheelchair roll" to benefit Women Against Gun Violence, the charity they have both turned their efforts toward, on Sunday, October 4th at California State University, Northridge. To register or contribute, please visit the Women Against Gun Violence web site.
Friday evening's service concluded with the prayer song T'filat Haderech (Traveler's Prayer):
May we be blessed as we go on our way
May we be guided in peace
May we be blessed with health and joy
May this be our blessing, amen.
May we be sheltered by the wings of peace
May we be kept in safety and in love
May grace and compassion find their way to every soul
May this be our blessing, amen.
Temple Ahavat Shalom, Rabbi's Blog
"The Shots That Shattered Our Calm," Jewish Journal
May all beings be well, may all beings be happy, may all beings be free from suffering.