From 6-Year-Old Gunshot Victim To Activist: Remembering LA's Jewish Community Center Shooting
Even as hate-inspired mass shootings like those in El Paso and Dayton seem to grow more common and more deadly by the day, many in Los Angeles will never forget the images from an anti-Semitic attack in Granada Hills 20 years ago.
On the morning of Aug. 10, 1999, a self-avowed white supremacist from Washington state carried a semi-automatic rifle into the lobby of the North Valley Jewish Community Center and fired 70 rounds. Buford O. Furrow Jr. shot and wounded three little boys, a teenage counselor and a receptionist.
Then he fled to Chatsworth, where he shot and killed Joseph Ileto, a Filipino American mailman. Then he took a taxi cab to Las Vegas and turned himself in. Furrow, who had ties to neo-Nazi hate groups in the Pacific Northwest, later told authorities he murdered Ileto because he looked Asian or Latino, and because he was a federal worker.
He also said he was trying to "send a message to America by killing Jews." Authorities recovered five assault weapons, two handguns and 7,000 rounds of ammunition from his vehicles.
Just a few months after a mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado had left 15 people dead, this Jewish community center in L.A.'s San Fernando Valley was in the national spotlight — a flashpoint in a growing conversation about guns and hate. The tragic event would reshape security at synagogues and Jewish institutions around the country and help launch the modern gun violence prevention movement.
Listen to the audio story at SCPR.org.
'THERE'S SOMEONE WITH A GUN AT THE JCC'
It was just before 11 a.m. when 6-year-old Josh Stepakoff's game of capture-the-flag at Jewish summer camp was disrupted by gunfire.
"I remember when the gunman came in, and the next thing I remember was the pain and the horror," said Stepakoff, now 26. "I ran as fast as I could in any direction I could until I got outside of the building."
Minutes later, Josh's mom Loren Lieb got an emergency call at work. It was her husband, Alan Stepakoff.
"I still remember that feeling," Lieb said. And those words: 'There's someone with a gun at the JCC.' It just didn't make sense to me."
Lieb drove from her office to the community center where she'd dropped off her children hours before.
"Police cars, ambulances, fire trucks," Lieb said. "It was a pretty scary-looking scene. And the first thing I heard somebody say was, 'We think one of the kids is named Josh.'"
Then Alan got a call from Children's Hospital Los Angeles: "We have your son."
Donna Finkelstein remembers getting a similar call that morning from a trauma nurse at Providence Holy Cross Medical Center in Mission Hills. Finkelstein's 16-year-old daughter Mindy was working at the JCC as a summer camp counselor.
"I heard, 'Mindy's been shot but she's going to live,' said Finkelstein. "I collapsed, I just fell to the floor. And I knew immediately that this was a hate crime."
When the parents arrived at their children's hospital bedsides, the suspected shooter was still at-large. Police were standing guard outside the doors. Local and national media were eager for photos and interviews.
"It wasn't something we were used to," said Alan Stepakoff. "We never had any kind of spotlight anywhere. This deeply affected our lives, but it also affected the lives of many strangers seeing three little kids get shot just because they were in a Jewish institution."
The shooting led most national news broadcasts. President Bill Clinton expressed condolences and offered a now all-too-familiar refrain.
"Once again our nation has been shaken and our hearts torn by an act of gun violence," President Clinton told reporters. "To the victims and their families, like all Americans, I offer our thoughts and prayers."
Josh Stepakoff was shot twice. One bullet shattered his lower leg. Another lodged in his back, just short of his spine. He spent four days in the hospital and six weeks in a cast. He still experiences post-traumatic stress disorder.
"Physically, it wasn't too big of a problem," Josh said, 20 years later. "It was the emotional side of things where I was really going to have a lot of work to do and a long road ahead of me, and I'm still working on it."
His family's top priority was providing their son some semblance of normalcy. At just six years of age, Josh did not understand why he'd been shot. When he was released, Josh's parents decided to bring him back to summer camp at North Valley JCC, and stay by his side.
"I didn't want him to be afraid to be Jewish," said Alan Stepakoff. "He just knew someone came in and started shooting. He didn't have the vocabulary for religious or hate crime. So, we brought him back to the JCC. We didn't want the other kids there to not want to come back or not want to be Jewish because of the shooting."
In the wake of the attack, Josh's mother Loren spent many days hanging around the JCC with her son. She was there when she first heard that a mother living on the East Coast named Donna Dees-Thomases had seen TV coverage of the shooting and wanted to do something about it.
"I heard someone was organizing a march in Washington for stronger gun laws," Lieb said. "I said, 'Okay, sure. I'll get involved.' I had no idea. But that was the very first planning stages of what became the Million Mom March."
"THE CLUB THAT NOBODY WANTS TO BE A PART OF"
Nine months later, on Mother's Day, 750,000 people marched on the national mall, and thousands more gathered at rallies around the country. At the time, it was the largest gun violence rally ever assembled.
There were jumbotrons and celebrity speakers, including President Bill Clinton and Rosie O'Donnell. Concerned moms came from all over, many pushing strollers.
"It was the birth of a movement, because there were no grassroots activism back then," said Alan Stepakoff. "There was nothing really going on beyond Washington, D.C."
It was Loren's first foray into national advocacy, and she was hopeful.
"I think many of us went into it thinking, woah, okay, we've kicked this problem to the curb," Loren said. "This is solved. You can't have a demonstration with this many people, this much passion, this much emotion, and then just have nothing happen."
The Million Mom March later merged with the Brady Campaign, a leading political lobbying group against gun violence.
Loren, a career epidemiologist in Los Angeles County, turned her attention to the epidemic of gun violence.
"We always say it's the club that nobody wants to be a part of," she said. "We didn't go out looking for this. It found us, and we decided to accept, I guess."
Alan Stepakoff joined the local Anti-Defamation League and started speaking against anti-semitism. He lobbied for hate crime laws in D.C. Twenty years ago, he says, the movement looked different.
"This was not a time of mass shootings," Alan said. "This was not a time of school shootings. Most of those people who were carrying signs and stuff, those were inner-city, gang, people whose kids were being killed one by one."
Slowly, these survivors-turned-advocates have learned just how complicated the problem of gun violence is. It's about much more than stopping mass shootings.
"Like today, two-thirds of those dying of gun violence is suicide," Alan said. "When you see that kids are shooting themselves accidentally, you want to have strong storage laws. When you see that most mass shootings are stopped when somebody changes their magazine of ammunition, you outlaw large capacity magazines. You keep chewing away at this one piece at a time."
Loren, Josh and Donna Finkelstein have had some success at the state and local level, working with L.A.-based Women Against Gun Violence to push for stricter gun laws in California and gun safety programs in cities, counties and school districts.
"I know it was definitely therapeutic for me," said Loren. "Somebody doesn't just shoot at my kids and then I don't do anything. I had to feel like I was doing something."
It's been empowering for Josh, too. He's been advocating for gun violence prevention since he was 13. He'll do some lobbying when asked, but mostly he travels around and shares his story.
"That's the part I focus on," said Josh. "It's oddly enough one of my favorite things to do. I really enjoy sharing my story. I learn a lot about myself when I do it."
AN ALARMING TREND
Aug. 10, 1999 was hardly the first attack on a Jewish institution, nor the last. U.S. Jewish communities have endured decades of vandalism, bomb threats and other attacks.
The Anti-Defamation League's annual report for last year shows anti-Semitism is at near-historic levels, with 1,879 attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions last year. Nationally, anti-Semitic assaults doubled from 2017 to 2018. Last October, a mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh claimed 11 lives, making it the single deadliest anti-Semitic attack in U.S. history. Anti-Semitic attacks in California rose 27 percent between 2017 and 2018.
"Jewish institutions have always been aware of the need for security, and it's not the first time Jewish institutions have been targeted," said Amanda Susskind, regional director for the ADL's Los Angeles office. " It's been a constant game to keep up with."
The ADL also finds that white supremacist extremists, like the man who attacked the Jewish Community Center in 1999, remain a serious threat. Last year, domestic extremists murdered 50 people in the U.S., according to ADL data. White supremacists were responsible for nearly 80 percent of the killings.
This reflects an ongoing trend. Over the past decade, only a quarter of all extremist-related fatalities have been tied to Islamic extremism, while the other three-fourths were tied to right-wing extremism, primarily white supremacists.
Still, Susskind admits 1999 felt like a turning point.
"This was shocking to Los Angeles," said Susskind. "It was a time when this wasn't as common. The thing that I remember most is that iconic picture in the newspaper of the children forming a human chain to get across the road safely."
The assailant in Granada Hills, Buford O. Furrow Jr., told authorities that he'd scouted three other Jewish institutions: the Museum of Tolerance, the Skirball Cultural Center and American Jewish University, but found security too tight.
Afterward, the North Valley Jewish Community Center installed gates, a guard shack and an armed security guard. Synagogues and other Jewish centers followed suit, ratcheting up an ongoing conversation about safety measures at houses of worship. That increased further after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Nina Lieberman was a JCC executive running the center at the time. She has mixed feelings about the shooting's impact on security in Jewish spaces.
"What are we seeing? There's been so much violence in Jewish institutions, and in secular institutions for children," said Lieberman. "Clearly the answer isn't solely in security. It's in getting those guns out of people's hands."
Josh Stepakoff agrees. He doesn't go to temple that often. But when he does, it makes him happier to see security guards.
"But it also eats me up inside, because this shouldn't be the case," said Josh. "We should be free to express our religious beliefs, and I hope that someday I can feel comfortable going to a house of worship without security like that."
COMMEMORATING 20 YEARS
Josh Stepakoff's family has spent 20 years sharing their worst day with the world, even as firearm death rates have risen and hate-filled mass attacks have grown more common and more deadly. Last weekend, mass shootings in Dayton, Ohio and El Paso, Texas left at least 31 people dead.
There's still no clear motive in the Dayton shooting, in which nine people were killed in a popular nightlife district. In El Paso, where the shooter opened fire in a local Wal-Mart, killing 22, white supremacist ideology is a suspected motive. The shooter faces possible hate crime charges in addition to murder charges, and is believed to have posted an anti-immigrant manifesto online. Most of the victims were Latino.
"It's very easy to be discouraged looking at all the attacks on the news," said Loren, "looking at the lack of action on the federal level."
Meanwhile, life has gone on for the Stepakoff family. Last month, Josh Stepakoff got married in Agoura Hills, and many of his wedding guests were people he knows from the JCC, or from the gun violence prevention movement. As much as he's struggled to be seen as more than just "the kid who got shot at the JCC," he was happy to see them.
"It's important to me that they continue to be a part of my life," said Josh. "They were there at some of the worst times and helped us get through it, so it's only fitting they would be there at the best times and help us celebrate."
As public as the family has been as advocates, they usually spend Aug. 10 as a family, huddled together out of the spotlight. But this year, 26-year-old Josh will be apart from his parents, honeymooning with his wife.
"For the first time in 20 years, I will be away from them, and I'm a little torn about it," said Josh. "But I'll be in the Greek islands. So, I can't complain too much."
Meanwhile, there are several commemorations in Los Angeles this weekend, including one on Sunday at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Northridge.