Jewish victims of violence will join Million Mom March

LOS ANGELES — Loren Lieb sat patiently at her 6-year-old son's side while he recovered from two gunshot wounds he suffered at the North Valley JCC last August.

She will stand in solidarity with tens of thousands of others at the Million Mom March on Mother's Day, May 14, in Washington, D.C.

Lieb — whose son Joshua Stepakoff was shot in the hip and though the leg at the L.A.-area JCC — is heading to D.C. with her husband, two sons and mother.

"Actually, it was the kids' idea that we all go," Lieb said. "I know it will be a very emotional experience for all of us."

The Million Mom March is intimately tied to the North Valley Jewish Community Center shooting that left three children, a teen and an older woman wounded.

New Jersey resident Donna Dees-Thomases came up with the idea for the march after watching the aftermath of the JCC shooting on television.

More than 100,000 are expected to descend on the National Mall in Washington in an effort to bring the issue to the forefront of election-year debates.

Eleanor Kadish, whose 5-year-old son, Benjamin, was the most critically wounded among the five victims, has found herself getting more and more involved in gun-control issues since the shooting.

"Not a day goes by that I don't think about it, and that will never go away…I am just amazed how the idea of the march started from nothing and now has spread across the country," Kadish said.

Sunday, the Kadish family was at the White House with the relatives of other gun victims to hear President Clinton pledge his unremitting efforts in getting federal hate-crime legislation passed.

Donna Finkelstein has similarly become involved in gun control since last summer.

"I'm going to Washington because I have to do it. I need to do it," said Finkelstein, whose 17-year-old daughter, Mindy, was one of five wounded in the JCC attack.

She will be accompanied by her two daughters and her husband.

Marchers will be promoting several reform measures:

*A "cooling off," or waiting, period as well as background checks for gun purchases.

*Licenses, registration and safety locks for all handguns.

*Limits on purchases to one handgun per month.

*Better enforcement of current gun laws.

The North Valley JCC families will hardly be the only Jews at the national rally. Synagogues and Jewish organizations from across the country are sending delegations.

The event seems to have bridged the gaps that often separate Jews of different streams.

Endorsers include organizations normally polarized by religion and politics, ranging from the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism to the Orthodox Union.

"In the Jewish community, this is not a divisive issue," said Marc Israel, director of congregational relations for the Religious Action Center, adding that the Jewish response to the march has been "tremendous."

Reva Price, Washington representative for the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said several events have put a Jewish focus on gun control over the past year.

"There was the hate crime in Chicago against Jews coming home from Shabbat services," she said, referring to last summer's attack on Orthodox Jews. "We've seen it touch our community very profoundly."

And just last Friday, a Jewish woman and four other minorities were shot to death in the Pittsburgh area.

About 30 mothers have been meeting at the North Valley JCC every two weeks since the shooting. Wanting to get involved in the march, the group has raised $10,000 to fly families to Washington.

"Something like this can't happen [without wanting to respond] to it," Lieb said.

For Finkelstein, one of the rewards in planning for the Washington march has been her encounters with African-American and Latina mothers who have lost children or relatives to gun violence.

"I have really learned that this problem affects everyone, regardless of ethnicity or background," she said.

According to a 1997 report by the Children's Defense Fund, 12 children die each day from gunfire. The FBI reports that 65 percent of all murders in 1998 were committed with a firearm.

"As long as we have guns readily available, then we have not yet, as humankind, achieved sanity in this world," said Lois Shallit, executive director of the New York City chapter of Hadassah, the Women's Zionist Organization of America.

Two days before her younger son's bar mitzvah in 1990, her oldest son, David Tzvi, was shot to death during a robbery by six teens.

"We had a bar mitzvah on Saturday and a funeral on Sunday," Shallit said.

Her fellow chapter members will be with her in Washington, marching in memory of Tzvi.

As the largest Jewish women's organization in the country, Hadassah considers it a responsibility to participate in the Million Mom March.

"Could I quote you a [biblical] text about guns? Probably not," said Tana Senn, director of Hadassah's American affairs/domestic policy department. "But it's inherently Jewish to want to protect the Jewish community and communities at large."

Rabbi Joel Mosbacher of Temple Emanu-El in Atlanta is planning to march in Washington in the name of pikuach nefesh, the mitzvah of saving a life. His father was shot to death in January 1999.

"I lived a sheltered suburban lifestyle," Mosbacher said. Before his father's murder, he added, "the issue didn't really resonate for me."

A year later, Mosbacher feels differently. So does Gail Powers.

Powers, the Million Mom March regional coordinator for California, Nevada and Arizona, said her son, Nathan, did not suffer any physical wounds when he escaped the North Valley JCC shooting unharmed. But his emotional scars have not yet healed.

"I didn't get involved until this happened in my backyard," Powers said.

Being of service to one's community and repairing the world, "are Jewish values that I learned late in life. I'd like to give those values to my children."

The coordinator for the state of Florida, Melissa Jacobson, lost two friends to an accidental shooting when she was 11 years old. Now that she has her own child, his safety is foremost in her mind.

She said the lack of adequate gun-control legislation has bothered her for some time, yet she did not pursue any course of action until now.

"I feel I have to set an example for my kids," said Jacobson, who is expecting her second child in August. "As a Jewish parent, it's the ultimate responsibility that I have to protect them."

Powers echoed the sentiment. Like many other parents, she blames herself for not acting or speaking out earlier for stricter gun control.

"I saw the Columbine school shooting on TV but did nothing but send condolences. I remember telling my husband, 'Thank God, this will never happen to us'. Four months later, it happened here," she said.

"When we meet at the JCC, we ask ourselves, who was responsible for the attack. We are all responsible, I feel responsible anytime there is a shooting.

"I don't want another mother to feel the way I did that day. I know we can make a difference. And I will fight against gun violence until the day I die."