When kids are attacked, families are also victims

When children are targeted in a shooting rampage, the circle of victims extends far beyond the wounded and the dead.

Shocked children after Connecticut school shooting 390 (photo credit: Michelle McLoughlin / Reuters)
Shocked children after Connecticut school shooting 390
(photo credit: Michelle McLoughlin / Reuters)
LOS ANGELES – When children are targeted in a shooting rampage, the circle of victims extends far beyond the wounded and the dead.
This tragic lesson, which the families of the 20 first-graders killed at Connecticut’s Sandy Hook Elementary School a week ago are now facing, was painfully learned 13 years ago by the parents of youngsters whom a white supremacist wounded at a Jewish community center in the Los Angeles suburb of Granada Hills.
In both instances, parents must cope not only with their own grief, but also with the frightening impact on the victims’ brothers and sisters.
On August 10, 1999, neo-Nazi Bufford Furrow Jr. walked into the North Valley Jewish Community Center and started spraying the school grounds with bullets. He wounded three boys, aged five and six, along with a teenage girl and an adult staffer.
Bullets penetrated the hip and leg of six-year-old Joshua Stepakoff, son of Loren Lieb and Alan Stepakoff, as he was playing at the JCC.
When Lieb arrived at the hospital, “at first I had no idea what to do next,” she recalled this week. She remembers the hospital counselor urging her not to probe and prod Joshua with questions, but instead to take her cues from the boy.
Another piece of advice was to avoid loud noises whenever possible, such as those from helicopters and emergency vehicle sirens.
Lieb followed the advice, but even without conversation, there were external signs of how the incident had affected her son. Every evening, he would check whether the doors and windows were locked and closed, and at night he insisted that all the lights be kept on in his bedroom.
It took a few years until he was ready to talk to his parents, telling them, “I have bad thoughts I can’t get out of my head.” He subsequently got help through professional counseling.
Joshua, now 19 and a college student, is fully recovered physically, but when new shootings break into the news, they refuel some of the old traumas.
“My advice to other parents would be to be supportive of your children, show that you love them, and always be ready to listen to them,” Lieb said.
Donna and David Finkelstein’s daughter Mindy was 16 and on her first job as a summer counselor at the JCC when Furrow shot her in the leg.
As a teenager, and as a girl, she reacted differently than Joshua had.
“We talked constantly about what had happened, her emotions and her sense of safety,” recalled her mother. Mindy’s sister Jodi, who is four years older, took part in the discussions, and the girls’ parents were careful to pay equal attention to both daughters.
To the Finkelstein family, it was obvious that the attack was a hate crime directed specifically against Jews. One effect was that Jodi stopped wearing the Star of David that had always dangled from her neck.
Both Lieb and Donna Finkelstein are active in the Brady Center and the Women’s Campaign, both dedicated to preventing gun violence.
“One reason [for my support] is that I want to show my kids that I’m trying to protect them and make changes, rather than just sit at home,” Finkelstein said.
Even for parents whose children escaped injury at the JCC shooting, the memories of the day still haunt them, and have triggered life changes for some.
Richard Macales was at his job at the University of California, Los Angeles, when his mother called him, citing a radio report about a shooting at the JCC.
While a colleague drove him from UCLA to the site of the shooting, Macales, an Orthodox Jew, recited Psalms. He offered up the same prayers when he heard of the Connecticut massacre 13 years later.
After a frantic search, Macales found his three-and-a-half-year-old son David, who had somehow struck out on his own and was sitting quietly at a curb.
At home, Macales and his then-wife Beverly had to cope not only with David’s problems, but also those of their younger son Aaron and older children Chava and Shmuel.
What carried the family through, Macales said, were their deep religious faith and their long-discussed plan to make aliya and settle in Israel.
After the JCC shooting, the family decided to turn that plan into reality, and a year later, they moved to Jerusalem.
In 2000, the Macaleses settled in Jerusalem, where Richard became a feature writer for The Jerusalem Post and now serves as a member of the selection committee for the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame in Netanya.
What riles him most is the preaching from some religious leaders, of different faiths, that illness, misfortune or disasters are somehow “divine retribution” for shortcomings or offenses that the affected individual or his community committed.
“I emphasize to my children that a tragedy should not be looked upon as something that is deserved,” he said, and that doing so “is the height of cruelty.”