The world was watching a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, on Saturday, as a rabbi and several members of Congregation Beth Israel were held hostage for almost 12 hours before escaping.
While it took the FBI some time to admit the hostage-taker was motivated by antisemitism, they finally stated the obvious, but Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, known to his congregants in this suburb of Dallas-Fort Worth as “Rabbi Charlie,” learned it firsthand during the harrowing experience.
You know some of the details --- how a Palestinian-born man with apparent mental problems and known to British intelligence was able to fly to JFK International Airport and travel to the Dallas area to try to get a terrorist released from a Fort Worth prison. After being ambushed during the Shabbat service and held at gunpoint inside the synagogue for many hours, the hostages realized the situation was quickly deteriorating, but Rabbi Charlie managed to save them all by finding the right moment to throw a chair at the terrorist and give them a chance to rush outside to safety. An FBI Hostage Rescue Team rushed the building after the hostages had rescued themselves –- I’ll let the irony of that sink in –- and they shot and killed the terrorist.
For the congregation, this week has been a time for healing, and they've been coming together in that spirit. Rabbi Charlie is a beloved local figure, to his own congregation and to those who simply know him as a neighbor and friend. Rabbi Amy Bigman, who was with Rabbi Charlie’s mother during the stand-off, said, “I’ve known Charlie since he was in high school. He is quite simply a mensch.”
That comment was taken from this excellent profile.
“Our rabbi is a wonderful human being,” said Ellen Smith, who grew up at Congregation Beth Israel, of Rabbi Charlie while the hostage stand-off was still going on. He’s praised by his local Jewish community but also is well known in Colleyville for his interfaith work. According to this report, local Muslim leaders spoke out in support of him on Saturday.
In fact, here’s another irony: “Alia Salem, the founder of an advocacy group exposing abuse among Muslim faith leaders and a self-proclaimed ‘vocal supporter’ of the movement to free the woman support by the hostage-taker, said on Twitter that she had been a friend of Cytron-Walker and his wife for 15 years.”
She wrote of the couple that “they are the kindest, gentlest and [most] loving people who have been absolutely rock-solid friends and allies, not only to me but to the entire Muslim community through thick and thin.”
The only unflattering thing said about Rabbi Charlie came from Ellen Smith, before it was known how the standoff would end: “He’s the worst singer in the world. He cannot hold a tune to save his life. I hope that he’ll get a chance to pray off-tune very badly during another Shabbat service.” And, of course, he will, with congregants happy to cover their ears.
Another commentary in this same publication might help us get inside the minds and hearts of those who anticipate attending services in their own synagogues this weekend. It quotes Rabbi Charlie as saying that it’s important for synagogues to continue to be welcoming, even as it was his decision to let a stranger through Congregation Beth Israel’s locked door that led to his being taken hostage.”
So, how welcoming should they be? At this time of uncertainty, Rabbi Paul Kipnes, of a Reform synagogue in suburban Los Angeles, has adopted a new motto for his staff: “WWRCD?” As in, “What would Rabbi Charlie do?”
Apparently, though, Rabbi Charlie is currently looking for a job, having resigned from the Colleyville congregation last fall after being there for over 15 years. He plans to leave in June. He joked lovingly about this at the healing service they held for the congregation and others in the community on Monday night, stressing that the congregation right now is looking for a way to heal. “We’re really trying to figure out what we need to do,” he said Monday. “We’ve got repairs to make to the congregation and we’re making arrangements so that we can have services this weekend.” He hopes congregants will get professional therapy if they feel they need it.
Rabbi Charlie said claims that he forbids congregants to carry firearms inside the building are not true. He does prefer concealed rather than open carry, he said, adding that “I would have hoped that one of the people in that synagogue that morning, one of the members from the synagogue, had had a gun on them to have things ended a little bit earlier.”
He also says that rumors he has called Israel "an apartheid state" are not true. He clarifies that although it’s a complicated situation, he’s “a huge supporter of Israel.”
He’s quoted extensively in this additional piece.
At noon on Thursday, Congregation Beth Israel hosted a webinar featuring FBI Director Christopher Wray and Rabbi Charlie to talk about some of the same issues, as well as how to address antisemitism and the training offered by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). This was a special edition of the ADL’s “Fighting Hate from Home” series. Interestingly, as well-trained as Rabbi Charlie is, he said he saw absolutely nothing to raise eyebrows about this man when he first came to the front door of the synagogue on that cold morning. The man started out very calm and normal, gradually morphing into someone more hateful and belligerent as the time passed.
One senses the same progression of emotion from calm and casual to freak-out during a phone call the terrorist made to his brother to say “goodbye” near the end of the stand-off. He tells his brother he’s been praying two years “for this” and that he is going to die.
We’re working on obtaining a recorded version of the webinar and will provide the link in an update if we do. Rabbi Charlie said the man clearly had chosen a synagogue for his plan because of a misplaced belief that “Jews hold all the power.” The man spoke of this consistently. He thought that if he took Jewish people hostage, that’s what would get “Lady al-Qaeda” released from the nearby prison, because in America, he said, Jews have so much more power and influence than anyone else.