Survivor stories: Victim of JCC attack had to come to grips with being shot 'because I was Jewish'

Mindy Finkelstein survived being shot by a white supremacist at a Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles when she was 16. Today, she shares her story to help other survivors.
/ Source: TODAY

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Mindy Finkelstein was 16 years old when she was thrust into the national spotlight in 1999 after a white supremacist opened fire at a Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles.

Finkelstein was a counselor at the JCC, a teen looking forward to her prom and dreaming about where she would go to college The gunman was Buford O. Furrow, who on the morning of Aug. 10 walked into the JCC and fired 70 shots with a semi-automatic weapon.

The shooting turned Finkelstein into what she described as “a poster child” for the national debate over gun control. It was a role she was not ready for, during a time when that type of violence was an uncommon event.

“Now as an adult, as a mother, as a wife, I almost feel sad for the teenager that I was in that I didn’t end up having what some would consider a normal teenage experience, because my life was altered forever that day,” Finkelstein told TODAY. “I’m proud of myself for the road I took afterwards.”

Finkelstein, who is now 35, was shot twice in legs. Three children and an office worker were also wounded. Buford later murdered a mail carrier before being caught by authorities. He was sentenced to two consecutive life terms in 2001.

As Finkelstein was being rushed to the hospital that day, a realization hit her.

“I was shot because I was Jewish,’’ she said. “That’s painful in a different way.”

A life altered

The JCC in Granada Hills, in the San Fernando Valley section of Los Angeles, had been a home away from home for Finkelstein since she was 5 years old.

Being Jewish just seemed like an aspect of her life until the attack made her acutely aware of her identity.

“I grew up surrounded by Jews and knew about the Holocaust and the KKK, but I had never come into contact with it until that moment,” she said.

A week after she was released from the hospital following the shooting, Finkelstein was in a wheelchair at a cousin’s bat mitzvah. She found herself receiving hugs from a group of Holocaust survivors in the family.

Mindy Finkelstein was 16 when she was shot by a white supremacist at a Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles.TODAY

“They said, ‘You’re one of us. We are survivors because people don’t think we deserve a chance to live our full lives,’” she said. “It really got to me in a way that I look forward every day to being Jewish, instead of running from it, because it stands for something more than just a religion, and it stands for something more than just a culture. It’s a survival.”

Finkelstein’s parents and the parents of other survivors became vocal advocates for gun control legislation. The shooting also galvanized the Million Mom March, a national movement calling for common sense gun policies that held marches across the country on Mother’s Day in 2000.

Finkelstein and her mother, Donna, threw their efforts into working with Women Against Gun Violence, the Brady Campaign to End Gun Violence and the The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. Finkelstein didn’t realize the toll it would take on her when gun control bills continuously failed to pass at state and federal levels.

“I suffered pretty dramatically from PTSD and still do, not just from being shot but also because I assumed what happened to me would change the course of (gun laws in) society because that’s what people told me,’’ she said. “When it didn’t, it’s really hard.”

She has been encouraged by a bond with other survivors, particularly Josh Stepakoff, 25, a fellow JCC survivor.

Stepakoff, who was just 6 when he was shot in the leg and the hip, has also been active in efforts for common sense gun policies, serving on the board of directors for Women Against Gun Violence.

“There’s kind of this unspoken rule that if something happens, if there’s a major shooting, if either one of us are struggling, we can lean on each other,” Stepakoff told TODAY. “We can call and text in the good times and the bad with the knowledge of someone being on the other end of the phone who understands what I’ve been through.”

Finkelstein went through a particularly tough time after the 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech in which 32 people were killed. Despite her own struggles, she has done her best to help other survivors when they have reached out to her.

“I’ve formed a friendship with other survivors of mass shootings, from Virginia Tech to Sandy Hook,” she said. “It’s a club we are part of, and we are supportive of one another.”

“I was shot because I was Jewish,’’ Finkelstein said. “That’s painful in a different way.” TODAY

A different landscape

The shooting made front page news internationally when it occurred 19 years ago and prompted visits from numerous congressmen and then-first lady Hillary Clinton.

In today’s climate, it wouldn’t be considered a mass shooting, which the federal government defines as one in which three or more people are killed.

The attack has faded in public consciousness in the wake of hundreds of other mass shootings. The JCC is now an Orthodox Jewish day school.

“I was the poster child for it and now it doesn’t even merit a blip on the radar,” Finkelstein said. “It’s very strange.”

“It was huge, and unfortunately that’s not the case anymore,” Stepakoff said. “I wish what happened to me was still the worse it gets, but it’s so much worse these days.”

The fact that the survivors were targeted for their Jewish faith adds a component that has not been found in many recent mass shootings.

“There’s also relations between me and survivors of hate crimes,” Finkelstein said. “I’m in two buckets.”

While many survivors of mass shootings refuse to make any mention of the gunman, Finkelstein believes it’s important to remember Buford, who remains in prison.

“I understand why people refuse to say the name of the shooter, but I don’t do that,” she said. “In my situation it’s important to understand how he came to be the way he was and make sure that’s publicized.”

Simply surviving has served as a rebuke of what Buford stands for.

“They tried to kill me because I’m Jewish and this is like the ultimate way to stick it to them,” Stepakoff said. “You tried, and you failed. I still am here, and I still am free to practice my religion.”

Last year’s march by white supremacists in Charlottesville, Virginia, served as a reminder that the issues raised by the JCC shooting nearly 20 years ago are still an ongoing concern across the country.

Anti-Semitic incidents surged 57 percent in 2017, from 1,267 across the country a year earlier to 1,986, marking the largest single-year increase since the Anti-Defamation League began tracking the incidents in the 1970s.

Finkelstein, who gave birth to a baby girl five months ago, wonders what type of world her daughter will inherit. Nineteen years after she was shot, the issue has only intensified.

“You look at kids from the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas (High School) saying, ‘I was expecting this to happen,’” she said. “For me, it was shocking at the time when it happened to me.

“My daughter is going to have these active shooter drills at school one day, and that is terrifying to know that her experience will be completely molded by the fact that these shootings take place.”

Finkelstein does her best to share her story with other survivors of gun violence to show them there can be hope after the horror.

“I try to be as honest as possible about what transpired in my life and how difficult it was,” she said. “But I also talk about all the success I’ve had despite what happened to me and also because of what happened to me.

“People feel like I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I don’t feel that way. I feel there was a reason that happened to me. (Buford) was at the wrong place and I was in the right place.”