On Mother’s Day weekend, Temple Beth-El of Great Neck congregant and gun safety activist Lois Schaffer will present a guest sermon, sharing the tragic story of her daughter who was murdered by a gun wielding teenage burglar during a home invasion nearly 15 years ago, at Erev Shabbat services on Friday, May 12, at 7 p.m.
She will be introduced by former state Assemblywoman Michelle Schimel, with whom she’s worked on gun safety legislation.
“Even though I have suffered the worst tragedy as a mother, sharing stories about my daughter is cathartic and a means to keep her alive,” explains Schaffer. “Honoring my daughter is one way I can help other parents not suffer the same tragedy.”
Susan Schaffer, daughter of longtime Great Neck residents Lois and David Schaffer, died after a 17-year-old fired a stolen handgun at her three times in the kitchen of her Missouri home.
The 1978 Great Neck South High School graduate was a 48-year-old single working mother of three, who had moved to St. Louis with her doctor husband and later divorced. The certified Pilates and Gyrotonic instructor had just opened her own exercise studio.
On the afternoon of Dec. 16, 2008, Susie carried groceries into her suburban home while talking on her cell phone to her oldest child, 23-year-old Rachel, who was living in New York. Rachel heard her mother ask: “What the hell is going on here?”—and the line went dead.
When Susie’s middle child, Daniel, a senior in high school, arrived home following a haircut, he found his mother on the kitchen floor, lying in a pool of blood.
The intruders, students at the same school as Daniel and his younger sister, Sarah, fled with a computer, an iPod and a digital camera. The house had been randomly selected, and the murderers later pleaded guilty. Lorenzo Wilson is serving 60 years in prison; Kenneth Shepard is serving 20.
“Her death was sudden and senseless,” reflects Schaffer. “As a lifelong gun safety advocate, the shock of this event was as unfathomable then as it is now.”
In 2021, 48,000 firearm deaths occurred in the United States. As of April 18 of this year alone, 12,487 individuals have died and 9,758 have been injured as the result of gun violence in the U.S., according to the Gun Violence Archive. This represents an average of more than 115 deaths a day in 2023.
These numbers include mass shootings, which the Gun Violence Archive defines as an incident in which four or more victims are shot or killed. So far this year, at least 164 mass shootings have occurred.
“Although I am a victim, I consider myself a survivor,” says Schaffer. “My daughter was killed by a teenage burglar in possession of a stolen handgun. I had to do something, not only to honor Susie’s memory but to use as a platform in protest of the easy accessibility of guns.”
As an activist, Schaffer has devoted her energies to protecting human rights throughout her life, prompting her to participate in marches and rallies in support of the Civil Rights Movement and to protest the Vietnam War.
She had been actively advocating for the reduction of gun violence even before her daughter’s murder. In the mid-’90s, nearly a decade before her own personal tragedy, Schaffer worked on Carolyn McCarthy’s congressional campaign, launched to promote more stringent gun control laws following McCarthy’s husband’s murder and her son’s severe injury when they were shot during the Long Island Rail Road massacre.
“I have been a gun safety advocate my entire life, helping to enact sensible legislation on the state and federal levels,” explains Schaffer. “I do whatever I can. I am not stopping. I’m using my power to prevent other people from becoming victims.”
In fact, in October 2008, two months before Susie’s death, Schimel, who has known Schaffer for many years through Temple Beth-El, had asked for her help to support the legislator’s bill, the Crime Gun Identification Act of 2012, that would require all new semiautomatic handguns sold in New York State to be microstamped with a unique code. It took a grueling 15 years for the bill to be passed.
“Knowing Lois for years as a gun violence prevention activist, imagine my horror upon learning that her own daughter, Susie, was murdered,” says Schimel, whose own devotion to the cause and later political career began through social action at the temple during a gun safety talk in 1994—sparked by the Long Island Rail Road massacre. “And since, she’s only doubled down on her efforts to bring gun safety to this country,” she continues.
Schaffer’s ongoing mission to reduce gun violence has included speaking about sensible gun legislation to various local and national groups, attending press conferences, gun safety rallies and writing two books, The Unthinkable: Life, Loss and a Mother’s Mission to Ban Illegal Guns and From Bullet to Bullhorn: Stories of Advocacy, Activism and Hope.
“I draw strength from the pain,” notes Schaffer. “I focus on turning my tears into compassion and action. I kvell from making someone smile, and it gives me pleasure knowing that I’m helping others. One death due to gun violence is one too many.”
In her latest novel, the author is pictured with friend Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who attended law school with Schaffer’s husband, David. Above the photograph, a quote from the late Supreme Court Justice reads: “Fight for the things that you care about but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.”
The community is welcome to join Erev Shabbat services at Temple Beth-El and see the activist speak and distribute gift copies of The Unthinkable at 5 Old Mill Road in Great Neck. To learn more about the peninsula’s first synagogue, which was founded in 1928, call 516-487-0900, visit www.tbegreatneck.org or email [email protected].