Newtown shooting brings back pain for L.A. Jewish center victims
"You hear about Connecticut?" Joshua Stepakoff texted Mindy Finkelstein on Friday at 10:48 a.m.
"Ya. I'm beyond words. Had to leave work. How are U?"
Stepakoff and Finkelstein belong to a unique club. A fraternity, Stepakoff considers it, and they are called together every time another mass shooting takes place. She is 29 and works in San Francisco as a director of development for the City of Hope. He is 19, a student studying psychology at Cal State Northridge.
Their bond goes back 13 years to one summer morning when Buford Furrow Jr., a neo-Nazi, walked into the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills, carrying a 9-millimeter semiautomatic pistol. They were among the five left wounded -- three being children ages 5 and 6 -- before Furrow left the center and killed a mail carrier in Chatsworth. Furrow is currently serving a life sentence.
They realize they will never escape the memories of that day in 1999, and they take solace knowing they can reach out to one another whenever the memories become too vivid.
"Being shot is nothing I can put into words," said Stepakoff. "The feelings -- the emotional and physical pain -- are not something everyone can understand."
Friday morning brought confusion and bewilderment back into his life. He had just gotten up, and the television was on at home. "Shooting at Connecticut Elementary School" read the banner at the bottom of the screen. As the details sank in, feelings of devastation and anger returned.
Finkelstein was in her car returning to her office from a meeting, and her world started caving in. She was having an anxiety attack, she said, just as she had experienced earlier this year at a theater, the first time she had gone to the movies since the shooting in Aurora, Colo. A co-worker consoled her. She went home and stayed in her room, answering emails and phone calls and watching the news.
They know they are not alone. With each new shooting, their club grows larger.
"Most people wonder how many were killed," Finkelstein said. "But I wonder how many people witnessed this, how many will be haunted by this for the rest of their lives."
Thirteen years have only broadened their perspective on a tragedy that they believe no one should ever have to know. Wisdom, however, is more elusive.
"You would think I have some wisdom," Finkelstein said, "but the truth is there are no words that can express the sadness and suffering that we have gone through. There is nothing I can say to the survivors. From my experience, it is not going to get better. Every time there is another shooting, they are going to feel like they did back then."
Over the weekend, Stepakoff and Finkelstein worked the familiar circuit of media requests and interviews. Questions often begin with their own stories.
She was 16, a teenager into Incubus and Leonardo DiCaprio. It was her first summer job, a counselor, and her campers had just finished playing capture the flag. Walking with one child back to the main building, she ran into a stranger in the hall.
She first heard the shot, then felt the bullets tear into her leg. She and her camper ran, pushing through an emergency exit and falling outside, pretending to be dead.
Stepakoff was 6. He and his group had been playing the same game of capture the flag and were behind Finkelstein. Shot in the leg and the hip, he only remembers running.
While she dates her life by the shooting -- who she was before and who she was after -- he doesn't have that ability. "The hardest part is that I was 6," he said. "I was so young, tender, so sculptable. I don't know if this has had a major impact on who I am now or whether I would have been this way or not."
Stepakoff and Finkelstein have learned to accept the burden and responsibility of their experience, first to one another and then to anyone who asks them. They play their roles -- putting a human face on gun violence -- reluctantly yet willingly and have become articulate representatives.
It is a measure of control they can bring into their lives, a lesson taught by their parents, who met not long after the 1999 shooting. Since then, their families have become vocal advocates for gun control legislation, providing firsthand accounts, raising money and directing anyone willing to listen to the Brady Campaign, Women Against Gun Violence, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
In the wake of the Newtown shooting, they are petitioning the Obama administration to pass gun control legislation through We the People and encouraging a national dialogue on the prevention of gun violence through We are Better than This.
They say that the world will never be the same for the survivors of these shootings and that any effort to find something redemptive from the tragedy will feel like a shallow victory, but they continue to try.
"The second we give up hope," Finkelstein said, "is the moment that we live in a war zone."
-- Thomas Curwen
Photo: Children from the Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills are escorted to safer ground by LAPD officers after a gunman open fire at the center on Aug. 10, 1999. Three children and two adults were wounded. Credit: Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times