A South Florida Chabad center may find itself playing a role in the case against school shooter Nikolas Cruz after footage from the facility’s security cameras showed images of the 19-year-old less than an hour after the horrific bloodbath that took the lives of 17 students and staffers at the Marjory Stoneham Douglas High School last week.
Rabbi Hershy Bronstein of the Chabad Chai Center – Coral Springs said that area residents had been pressuring officials for more details about Cruz’s activities from the time he left the high school until he was detained by the police.
A Thursday night announcement by Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel supplied the public with an official timeline, one that placed the Chabad center directly on the killer’s route.
“The sheriff said that after merging with the student base and leaving the school, he walked into the Subway store at the Walmart Supercenter and bought a drink and continued down the street, entering McDonalds at 3:01 PM,” Rabbi Bronstein told VIN News.
The Chabad Chai Center is located less than a mile south of the Walmart store and just north and next door to the McDonalds that Cruz has visited. Knowing that Cruz could not have gotten to McDonalds without passing his property, Rabbi Bronstein ran to his computer to check the Chabad center’s security feed.
“My heart skipped a beat when I saw it,” said Rabbi Bronstein. “You see him in our parking lot, casually walking by, looking over his shoulder.”
Rabbi Bronstein said he was not surprised to be greeted the next morning at the Chabad Chai Center by the news media.
“The FBI had already subpoenaed the cameras from Walmart and McDonalds and when the news media came down and saw my property and the location of my cameras, they knew that I would have footage as well,” said Rabbi Bronstein. “I debated for a minute before I gave it to them but decided that the people here who were hurting deserved to have something and I wanted to be able to share the information with them.”
The FBI arrived a short time later, taking Rabbi Bronstein’s DVR with them for possible use by prosecutors when Cruz goes to trial.
“They told me it could be an important part of the case,” explained Rabbi Bronstein. “If he takes an insanity plea, the confident way he is walking could prove otherwise.”
The high school serves students in both Parkland and the northern portion of Coral Springs and Rabbi Bronstein estimated that 70 to 80 students at the high school had a relationship with his Chabad Chai Center.
“Anyone in the area that I have ever bar or bat mitzvahed or who went through our program goes to that school,” said Rabbi Bronstein. “Every single family in our community is affected and there isn’t one who isn’t going to need support.”
Rabbi Bronstein said that he raced to the high school on Wednesday as soon as he learned of the shooting.
“I got as close as I could,” said Rabbi Bronstein. “I saw many of my students getting out. This is very personal to me.”
None of Rabbi Bronstein’s students were among the dead or injured in Wednesday’s massacre although he said that many witnessed the carnage. One reported having to step over a dead body in order to leave the school.
One Stoneham student walked straight from the school to the Chabad Chai Center, knowing that her mother would be arriving later to pick up her younger brother, a student in the Chabad’s preschool program.
“She knew that we were nearby and she came to us,” said Rabbi Bronstein. “Do you think she knew she was running with the shooter himself?”
Rabbi Bronstein said that another Chabad Chai Center family had just recently moved to Coral Springs from Israel, hoping to live peacefully in a safe community that was far removed from the fear of terrorism.
“Even people who didn’t have kids in the school are affected,” said Rabbi Bronstein. “Everyone is hurting deeply.”
Rabbi Bronstein has made the Chabad center available to the community in the aftermath of the shooting, opening it up on Wednesday for those who couldn’t get to the staging area at the Marriot Heron Bay to use as a meeting point, and offering support and counseling to the community.
A special Shabbos prayer service that was opened to the community drew a large number of community members who are not frequent synagogue-goers, with a Kel Maley Rachamim made for those who were gunned down.
As the funerals and investigations continue, Rabbi Bronstein said that the Chabad Chai Center is working on other ways of honoring those who died while helping survivors cope with the senseless tragedy.
“We hope to do a shloshim to commemorate the victims and we are starting a campaign to distribute mezuzas to as many families as we can,” said Rabbi Bronstein. “Any family with a kid in Stoneham Douglas is welcome to stop by and get one.”