JCC strives for normalcy after rampage

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LOS ANGELES — Outside the North Valley Jewish Community Center early Monday, police stood watch and a small media swarm recorded the moment as campers, preschoolers, members and staff re-entered the site of last week's shooting rampage.

Among those who made a happy entrance: Isabelle Shalometh, the 68-year-old receptionist wounded in the attack; James Zidell, 6, who was shot in the left foot; and 6-year-old Joshua Stepakoff, wearing a cast over his left leg.

All but five of the 165 campers and preschoolers returned.

Those dramatic entrances happened outside.

But walking inside the center's lobby — from which every media outlet except the L.A. Jewish Journal was excluded — one would never know anything bad had happened.

Seniors sat on couches sipping coffee and sampling muffins, waiting to attend their usual Monday morning program. The aerobics class had just let out, and women clad in bike shorts stopped to chat with some of their friends. Counselors dressed up for "crazy hair day" led groups of excited youngsters to the play yard.

Only the rows of flower pots and gift baskets sent by neighboring organizations let on that this hall had been the scene of the attack. Otherwise, it was, as counselor Robert Roig said, "just another day at camp."

And that restored innocence is exactly how members of the JCC in Granada Hills wanted it to be. At every gathering since the incident Tuesday of last week — when confessed killer Buford O. Furrow Jr. entered the center and began shooting — the determination has been clear: Jews will not allow their lives to be destroyed by a bigot with a gun.

As for the other shooting victims, counselor Mindy Finklestein, 16, has been released from the hospital. She is still recuperating at home.

Benjamin Kadish, 5, of West Hills remains in serious condition at a local hospital. But he is off the respirator and speaking with his family.

One of the few signs of the unusual was the presence of the Rev. Jesse Jackson, joined by a delegation of area clergy. He called for the creation of a "coalition of consciousness."

"There is a sense that we are underestimating the number of guns, technical capabilities and the will to injure in our country," Jackson later told reporters.

The JCC's journey back to normalcy began early Wednesday of last week — the day after the shootings — when police released the crime scene back to JCC officials. Immediately, volunteers gathered, bringing paint and brushes and tools. Under the supervision of maintenance supervisor Jose Ruelas, they began the process of restoring the bullet-torn lobby and hallways.

"We've had an incredible donation of support from the community," said Michele Schipper, director of the North Valley JCC. "People came really quickly and were very responsive."

JCC officials said that, while the worst was over, they will need continued support, financial and moral, from the entire community.

The JCC system anticipates costs for additional security for all the Jewish Community Centers to exceed the million-dollar mark, with another $500,000 needed in capital improvements.

The camp had already reopened on a limited basis the day after the shootings, borrowing space from next-door neighbors Temple Beth Torah and the St. Andrew and St. Charles Episcopal Church.

That church also donated its sanctuary to counselors from Jewish Family Services and the L.A. County Department of Mental Health to start the healing process with the campers, preschoolers and their families.

Crises counselors were also made available at a community meeting held Wednesday night of last week at the church, led by officials from the JCC, the L.A. Police Department and the L.A. Fire Department.

The meeting allowed parents and JCC members to air their many concerns to local law enforcement, including security needs for the upcoming High Holy Day services at area synagogues.

There were also several standing ovations for the JCC staff, the police and the fire department, all of whom were credited for their speedy response and quick thinking during the emergency.

Perhaps the most moving gathering over the past week was the Shabbat service held last Friday at the North Valley JCC. Although just days after the shooting, the atmosphere was anything but frightened. Families sat just a little closer together than they normally might, mothers held their youngest ones just a little tighter, and JCC members shared smiles and hugs.

During the service, there was a moment of silence for slain postal worker Joseph Ileto. Kaddish was recited in his memory.