Jewish institutions across America are re- evaluating their security in the wake of a shooting at a Los Angeles-area Jewish community center that left five injured, including a 5-year-old boy who is fighting for his life.
According to early reports, a gunman wielding a 9-millimeter automatic weapon burst into the lobby of the North Valley Jewish Community Center Tuesday morning, fired 20 to 30 shots and wounded three children and two adults.
A 5-year-old boy was hit repeatedly, and his condition was described as “extremely critical.”
Local hospital officials and police, who did not release the names of the shooting victims, said two 6-year-olds were in stable condition.
A 68-year-old woman, who was shot in the arm, and a 16-year-old girl, who was shot twice in the leg, were both in stable condition.
Police cordoned off the entire area adjoining the center in Granada Hills, a suburb of Los Angeles, and were reportedly looking for a balding, white male in his 40s wearing green clothes.
Police evacuated 22 children from the center and led them to the nearby Temple Beth Torah.
At the time of the shooting, two classes from the community center were touring the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Museum of Tolerance.
“Some of the mothers (of the children) have been calling frantically and our staff has assured them that the ones that are in the museum are OK,” Rabbi Marvin Hier, the dean of the Wiesenthal Center, told the local CBS affiliate in Los Angeles.
Tuesday’s shooting, which came shortly before 11 a.m., comes on the heels of two other attacks that shook the Jewish community.
On June 18, arsonists set fire to three northern California synagogues. Two weeks later, on July 2, a gunman near Chicago shot six Jews during a shooting spree aimed at minorities.
After Tuesday’s attack, the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America immediately put out an action alert to the 275 centers, urging them to beef up security and contact their local law enforcement authorities, according to Robin Ballin, marketing director of the association.
“We had no reason to think that something like this could happen. We had no indications,” said Jeff Rouss, executive director of the North Valley JCC. “We have stepped up security at our other sites,” Rouss said.
He used the opportunity to call for gun control.
“As a Jew and as an American, as the director of the Jewish community center this is an issue about safety in our society.
We must do something about guns. We must stop this. Let’s protect our children. Let’s let them be children,” an emotional Rouss said.
In Washington, President Clinton told reporters at the White House, “This is another senseless act of gun violence.”
Clinton added: “It calls on all of us not only to give our thoughts and prayers to the victims and families, but to intensify our resolve to make America a safer place.”
All Jewish community centers receive a security manual from the association.
Following the Sacramento synagogue fires, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, an umbrella organization, issued a “security reminder” to its member agencies. “Tragic events such as this one remind us of the need to adhere to routine, common sense security precautions following the attack,” the memo said.
While many Jewish institutions were rethinking their security precautions following the attack, most attention was immediately focused on the victims.
Dr. Charles Deng, of the Providence Holy Cross Medical Center, told reporters that the 5-year-old boy was shot in the abdomen and leg.
Deng told reporters he does not know if the boy “will survive the next few hours, let alone the next few days.”
The North Valley JCC is one of seven branches of the JCCs of Greater Los Angeles.
The injured students were enrolled in a summer day camp at the center, according to parents and police.
“It’s terrifying that somebody would randomly pick on innocent children,” the mother of a 7-year-old said in an interview with KTLA, another Los Angeles television station.
Los Angeles Fire Department Capt. Steve Ruda told reporters that the scene – – “children with gunshot wounds” — was the “worst case” for firefighters, who were the first to arrive at the center.
Local television stations provided live footage of police evacuating about 22 children from the center.
Police officers, after holstering their weapons following a search of the JCC campus, led a chain of children holding hands across a six-lane road, followed by staff members carrying younger children.
After some children, smiling and looking carefree, refused to leave the curb without holding an adult’s hand, additional police officers stepped in and formed another line of children.
Throughout the afternoon, the children were reunited with their parents at the nearby Temple Beth Torah.
U.S. Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.), whose district includes the JCC, said through a spokesman that he “deplores this kind of action, and our prayers are certainly with those involved.”
In Washington, Vice President Al Gore, who said the White House was monitoring the situation very carefully, offered federal assistance with the investigation.
“There is still a great deal we don’t know, except the fact that we’ve seen a neighborhood and a community shattered by violence,” Gore said.
As police continued to search for the gunman, Jewish officials stressed that their institutions are safe.
“Generally people should feel safe,” Ballin of the JCC association said.
“These random incidents happen everywhere.”
Rabbi Larry Goldmark of the Southern California Board of Rabbis offered a prayer at a live televised news conference.
“We pray that these innocent young children and men and women will recover, that God gives us strength and that God gives all of us throughout this world peace, especially peace within our hearts so that the senseless crimes that go on now literally day after day may end, and there truly would be peace all over. Amen.”
Many Los Angeles residents received worried calls from relatives in Israel and other countries, who had followed reports of the shooting on radio and television, sometimes even before local residents were aware of the situation.
Rabbi Michael Melchior, the Israeli minister for Diaspora relations and social affairs, condemned what he called an “abhorrent attack.”
Melchior said he is very concerned at the recent upsurge in anti-Semitic violence in the United States and other parts of the world.
He added that he plans to meet with world Jewish leaders in the near future to discuss the situation and solutions to the problem, such as education and information campaigns.
Melchior also spoke to Los Angeles community leaders by phone to offer Israeli government assistance to the community following the attack.
(JTA Washington Bureau Chief Matt Dorf, and JTA correspondents Tom Tugend in Los Angeles and Avi Machlis in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.