Seattle Federation Finds Shooting Wounds Hard To Heal

By Rebecca Spence

Published July 17, 2008, issue of July 25, 2008.
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Seattle - Walking through Seattle’s bustling downtown area, it’s easy to miss the port city’s Jewish federation building. With no street level signage to hint at what type of business is conducted inside its walls, the facade looks more like that of an anonymous condominium complex than a nexus of Jewish life.

There’s a reason for that: In the aftermath of the deadly shooting rampage at the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle two summers ago this week, things have visibly changed at the city’s central Jewish charity. For starters, the building’s external profile has been minimized to avoid drawing attention.

It has been two full years since Naveed Haq, a Pakistani American with a history of mental illness, entered the building July 28, 2006, with a semi-automatic pistol and began firing. Five women, four of whom were not Jewish, were seriously injured, and one woman was killed. Since then, the federation offices have been completely remodeled; security has been heightened tenfold, and the tragedy-stricken charity is just beginning to return to business as usual.

But, as federation leaders noted in interviews conducted at their headquarters, the wounds are still healing.

“The most frustrating thing for me is that people think we should be over it by now,” said Robin Boehler, the outgoing chair of the federation’s board. “I don’t think that people really understand what it takes to get over something like this.”

Last month, those like Boehler, who were most closely impacted by the shooting, were dealt another painful blow when Haq’s criminal prosecution resulted in a mistrial. The jurors were reportedly deadlocked after being unable to determine if Haq was not guilty by reason of insanity. Now, in yet another hurdle, the retrial, originally scheduled for September 22, has been postponed until January.

Boehler, 51, has been centrally involved in the tragedy since its first days, when she was thrust into the role of handling the media. In partnership with the federation’s president and CEO, Richard Fruchter, she also oversaw and raised funds for the facility’s $1.4 million renovation, which was completed in the spring of 2007. In an hour-long interview held in a conference room where murder victim Pamela Waechter’s office once stood, Boehler touched on how difficult it was to decide to reoccupy the space where the tragic events unfolded.

“People felt strongly that if we left, we would have been chased out of here,” Boehler said. “We needed to come back and say, ‘You don’t get to tell us where to do our business.’”

Still, if they were going to stay in the same building, Boehler knew they would have to make some significant changes to it. Several employees had actually seen the body of Waechter, the federation’s 58-year-old director of annual giving, lying lifeless on the staircase landing. Now, not only has the staircase been relocated but the entire office is unrecognizable. It is far more open — almost loft-like with high wood-beamed ceilings — so that people in the back of the office can see what is going on in the front. One of the victims, Christina Rexroad, didn’t know what has happening and was shot when she ran forward.

It is not just the federation that has had to cope with the events of that hot July day. The Seattle Jewish community, which numbers 40,000, is small and tight-knit. As one local rabbi put it, “Everybody knows everybody.” So when Waechter, a Lutheran convert to Judaism who was known for her devotion and activism in the Jewish community, was killed in cold blood, the reverberations were felt all over town. Indeed, security has been heightened at all communal institutions, and there exists a lingering sense of unease.

“Underlying everything, there’s a certain anxiety among Jews in Seattle,” said Rabbi Jim Mirel of Temple B’Nai Torah, a Reform congregation where Waechter once served as synagogue president. “There’s a little bit of a malaise that does permeate to some extent. It’s definitely there.”

On a practical level, Seattle-area synagogues now have security guards at Sabbath services, which would have been unheard of two years ago.

And in the wake of the shooting, the federation itself lobbied for increased security funding for all Seattle-area Jewish institutions. Zach Carstensen, the federation’s 31-year-old director of government affairs, successfully secured $900,000 from the state of Washington for communal security improvements and $446,000 in federal Homeland Security funds, to be divided among five Jewish institutions.

At the federation, some of the security upgrades are obvious — panels of bullet-resistant glass buffet the reception area, and entry through the unmarked front door requires being buzzed in — but others are less visible. Boehler was circumspect when asked to detail the security improvements, so as not to give anything away to a potential future attacker. She did say, however, that the federation had consulted with some of the country’s top security experts and that as part of the overall upgrade, many more cameras had been installed.

Fruchter, 55, who took over as federation president and CEO immediately after the shooting, spoke in positive terms about his organization’s future. Only in the past month has he finished filling all the staff positions, many of which remained open for months on end, as applicants were put off by the tragedy’s legacy. Fully one-half of the charity’s 35-member staff is new.

In financial terms, the federation’s annual campaign fell this year. Last year, the charity raised $6.2 million — much of which is disbursed to local social service agencies — and this year, that number dropped to $6.05 million. As a result, said Fruchter, the federation had to reduce its allocation to the umbrella organization of Jewish federations, United Jewish Communities, as well as cut back on Israel and overseas funding. The federation also reduced its agency allocations by 9%. And yet, Fruchter noted, there have been unexpected successes: Over the past year, the Seattle federation has taken 70 people — its highest number to date — on missions to Israel.

Fruchter, who now fields invitations from across the country to speak about organizational crisis management, is hopeful that he can attract new donors and finally move ahead with his vision for the charity. “Now we’re looking forward to doing just the normal work of the federation,” he said.

But for the shooting victims themselves, life is not apt to return to normal anytime soon. Cheryl Stumbo, the federation’s former director of marketing and communications, was shot through the left backside of her torso. The bullet — a “hollow point” bullet allegedly purchased by Haq to inflict greater injury — went through her intestines and into her uterus. Stumbo, 45, sustained 10 surgeries over a six-week period.

After returning to work part-time four months after the shooting, and pushing it to full-time six months later, Stumbo — one of the four non-Jewish victims — found that she simply couldn’t muster the energy both to do her job and take care of herself. Now that she is unemployed, she said, she is simply waiting to see where life takes her.

Despite the personal suffering she has endured, Stumbo is most outraged by the ease with which her attacker was able to obtain a deadly weapon. “The thing that makes me most angry was the fact that he was able to walk into a gun shop and buy these guns,” Stumbo said. “None of this needed to happen. Pam didn’t need to die.”

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