He Was Shot In A Hate Crime. It Only Strengthened His Judaism

Nov 2, 2018
Originally published on November 2, 2018 9:59 am

Editor's note: A version of this story first aired on Nov. 10, 2017.

It's been nearly one week since a gunman launched a deadly attack at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 people and wounding four. The massacre is a sobering reminder that anti-Semitic violence remains a real threat.

Josh Stepakoff, 25, knows this reality firsthand. Nearly two decades ago, he survived a shooting — later ruled a federal hate crime — that devastated a Jewish community in Los Angeles.

It was Aug. 10, 1999. That morning, 6-year-old Josh was playing a game of capture the flag when a shooter opened fire on his day camp at the North Valley Jewish Community Center.

Josh was shot in the leg and hip. The gunman also wounded two other children, a teenage counselor and an office worker at the center, before fatally shooting a letter carrier a few miles away.

In a StoryCorps conversation recorded last year with his father, Alan Stepakoff, Josh reflected on the shooting and how his Jewish identity played into why he was targeted.

He spoke to his father about how after he was shot, a staff member at the camp carried him to safety.

"I just remember kind of bouncing in their arms," he says. "They put me down on the floor, then they covered me with blankets. And I just kept screaming, 'Call 911. Call 911.' "

While Josh was recovering in the hospital, he and his dad recalled seeing the shooter's face on TV. "Do you remember why you thought he might have shot you?" Alan asks his son.

Josh says it would be years before he started thinking about his Jewish identity in relation to the shooting.

"I don't think it was until I was preparing for my bar mitzvah that I really started to think about the fact that it was because I was Jewish," Josh says. "You and mom were so careful about making sure that I didn't stray away from my religion just because I was targeted for it."

Alan says he didn't want his son to fear for his safety because of his heritage, as some of their ancestors had.

"The last thing I wanted you to do was to be afraid of being Jewish," he says. "Some of it went back to my childhood. My mother had told me about stories from the '40s and '50s. Now, all of a sudden through my 6-year-old to experience this."

But, says Josh, the shooting has only reinforced the values he derives from his faith.

"As I started to reflect on why I was shot," he says, "I started to think of all of the good things that came from Judaism as opposed to this one terrible thing. I started to remember that it's my view on life. It's making sure that I treat everyone with compassion and that was more of what Judaism meant to me rather than a threat to who I was."


Audio produced for Morning Edition by Mia Warren and Liyna Anwar.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's Friday and time for StoryCorps. On the morning of August 10, 1999, 6-year-old Josh Stepakoff was at a Jewish day camp in Los Angeles when a white supremacist walked in and opened fire with a semi-automatic weapon. Josh was shot in the leg and the hip. Four others were wounded. One person was killed. Last year, Josh and his father, Alan Stepakoff, came to StoryCorps to remember that day. And as we approach the first Sabbath since the attack on the synagogue in Pittsburgh, let's listen to a bit of their conversation.

JOSH STEPAKOFF: I remember playing Capture the Flag. And I looked up and I saw somebody who was holding something at his hip. I thought it was a power drill. And then the next thing I remember is someone picked me up. And I just remember kind of bouncing in their arms. They put me down on the floor, then they covered me with blankets. And I just kept screaming, call 911, call 911.

ALAN STEPAKOFF: I remember sitting in the hospital room with you that evening. And his picture was on the TV. You looked up at it, and you said, you know, that's the shooter. Do you remember why you thought he might have shot you?

J. STEPAKOFF: I don't think it was until I was preparing for my bar mitzvah that I really started to think about the fact that it was because I was Jewish. And, you know, I know you and mom were so careful about making sure that I didn't stray away from my religion just because I was targeted for it.

A. STEPAKOFF: The last thing I wanted you to do was to be afraid of being Jewish. Some of it went back to my childhood. My mother had told me stories from the '40s and '50s. Now, all of a sudden, through my 6-year-old to experience this. You know, one of the most difficult things for me was I could never assure you I could protect you. You know, I could never put my arms around you and say, don't worry, Josh, I'll keep you safe because I couldn't.

J. STEPAKOFF: For me, as I started to reflect on why I was shot, I started to think of all of the good things that came from Judaism as opposed to this one terrible thing. I started to remember that it's my view on life. It's making sure that I treat everyone with compassion. And that was more of what Judaism meant to me, rather than a threat to who I was.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHRIS ZABRISKIE'S "TEMPERATURE OF THE AIR ON THE BOW OF THE KALEETAN")

MARTIN: That was Josh and Alan Josh Stepakoff' for StoryCorps. Their conversation was recorded in Los Angeles last year. Their interview will be archived along with hundreds of thousands of others at the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.