When ‘Be Prepared’ is more than a slogan

When ‘Be Prepared’ is more than a slogan

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker recounts his hostage story, as well as what he’s learned

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker (Courtesy of Mitch Silber)
Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker (Courtesy of Mitch Silber)

Most of us probably remember the story.

On January 15, 2022 — it was a Shabbat — Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and three of his congregants at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, welcomed a stranger into the synagogue.

That stranger turned out to be malign. Hospitality was met with terror; the man, who had a gun, released one of his captives but held the others for 11 hours, until Rabbi Cytron-Walker was able to throw a chair at him, disorienting him enough to allow all of them to escape.

It’s a terrifying story. It’s also from a more innocent time; antisemitism had begun to leach into our atmosphere, a result of the coarsening of our culture as the extreme polarization afflicting us now made room for ancient hatreds, but it was before Hamas’s attack on Israeli civilians somehow removed the covers from all our sewers and let antisemitic sludge roll down
our streets.

So how do we remember this story and still open our doors? How do we balance hospitality with prudence?

Rabbi Cytron-Walker will talk about his experiences and the wisdom he’s gained from it on November 15, in an evening sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey and many other local Jewish organizations. (See below.)

Of course, the need for security is even stronger now than it had been before the Hamas attack, he said. There are methods that local Jewish leaders can use to enhance the safety of their communities, and the organizations that teach them.

He and some of his community leaders had been trained in security measures, and it was that training that saved them. How lucky, you might think, but no, he said. It was not luck.

“There had been the terrible shooting at the Mother Emanuel church in Charleston.” That was on June 17, 2015, when a young white man walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, engaged in Bible study with congregants there, and then pulled out a gun and murdered nine of the people with whom he’d just studied. Another victim was wounded. All of them were Black, and the murderer made clear that his motives were racist.

“And there was the shooting at the Tree of Life,” he continued. That was the Pittsburgh shul that an antisemite with a gun shot up on October 27, 2018, killing 11 people and wounding six.

“The FBI offered training for religious leaders, and the ADL, which I already had a good relationship with, made us aware of this training,” Rabbi Cytron-Walker said.” I thought it was  a good idea. We knew that something bad could happen, and that really started our journey at Beth Israel.”

Rabbi Cytron-Walker is now the ADL’s special adviser on security as well as a pulpit rabbi; in a  decision made before he was held hostage in Texas, he moved to Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to lead Temple Emanuel there.

Liron Filiby runs an active threat training program at a U.S. synagogue; Rabbi Cytron-Walker took a similar course.

Soon after he took the FBI’s first course, Rabbi Cytron-Walker took a second one, an active shooter training. “Around that time, our local police department held a  course for religious congregations on developing emergency procedures.  There were roughly five or six sessions that allowed me to understand how important preparation is. What I understood is the possibility that something bad might happen.”

Rabbi Cytron-Walker was trained by federal and local organizations, as well as by the ADL, which is an international Jewish organization. “We also had an FBI agent in our congregation in Colleyville, a Jewish FBI agent, who worked in the Dallas office,” he said. “He’s a wonderful mensch of a man.

“The training sessions were similar, but each one was different.”

Although training can’t completely prepare for reality, it can come close. By the time the intruder walked into Beth Israel, Rabbi Cytron-Walker was ready for him.

Imagine the scene. Colleyville is a small town, it’s “west of Dallas and north of Fort Worth,”  and Beth Israel is a small Reform community. “It was a very cold day in Texas — it was less than 40  degrees,” Rabbi Cytron-Walker said. When the assailant walked into the synagogue, the pandemic hadn’t ended. As a result, there were only four people, all men, in the building when the  intruder looking to stop the global Jewish conspiracy made it five. The service was hybrid; about a dozen people joined it online.

The episode started when “this guy came in asking for a night shelter,” he said. “He looked like he had spent the night on the street — and it turned out that actually he had spent the night on the street.

“He arrived about 15 minutes before the service was to begin, when I was trying to get the Zoom camera set up, get everything turned on, and make sure that all the slides were projecting properly.”

Rabbi Cytron-Walker offered the stranger tea. He did not sense danger.

“It’s important to note that I did speak with him,” he said. “I had a good conversation with him. It was an opportunity to get to know him. And I didn’t see any red flags.

“Jeff Cohen, who was the vice president of the congregation at the time, also went over, introduced himself, and didn’t see anything out of the ordinary.”

The service began. “It was during the Amidah, when my back was turned to the congregation, when I heard the click of a gun.”

Rabbi Cytron-Walker hoped that he’d heard wrong, that his imagination was playing with him. “I hoped that I hadn’t recognized the sound.” He hoped that maybe it was something hitting the building’s tin roof, or from the ice machine. “But it turned out that I was correct.

SWAT team members deploy near Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, on January 15, 2022. (Andy Jacobsohn/AFP via Getty Images)

“And so I went back to talk with him.

“I told him that he didn’t have to stay. And that’s when he pulled the gun on me. And he started shouting about how not only did he have the gun, but he had bombs.

“He didn’t have any bombs. But we didn’t know that at the time.”

Meanwhile, everyone on Zoom saw that something was wrong. “People could pick up that there was yelling. And shortly afterward, he had me go up on the bimah and explain a little bit about the situation.

“Even before that, someone had called 911, which was at the door in less than two minutes. And right away, they recognized that it was a hostage situation.”

After 11 hours, which must have felt like 11 years, the gunman — a 44-year-old Muslim Englishman who also believed that Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of Manhattan’s Central Synagogue was in charge of America’s Jews because the name of her institution made her power clear —  showed signs of impatience.  He’d been growing increasingly tense, and Rabbi Cytron-Walker worried that he might be losing  all restraint.

Until then, Rabbi Cytron-Walker had relied on his training to know how to talk to the gunman; he was able to establish trust. But now, going by what he’d been taught, that trust might be slipping. The danger seemed to be rising.

The intruder had released one of his victims. Rabbi Cytron-Walker made sure, without using words, that the remaining two were ready to move quickly. Then he threw a chair at the intruder, and all three of them managed to get out before the FBI SWAT teams rushed in.

Soon the gunman was dead.

Although he tells the story over and over again, he doesn’t find it emotionally jarring, Rabbi Cytron-Walker said. “I haven’t had any PTSD.

“I feel very fortunate. As dramatic as it was, the incredibly positive thing about it is the fact that we were able to escape before the FBI and SWAT came in.

“We were lucky. We were all able to get out alive. And we didn’t have to experience a flashbang. No one was physically injured. We didn’t have to see anybody get killed in front of us.

“I think it’s important to tell the story,” he continued. “Not just because it’s compelling, but because it helps people understand just what antisemitism can lead to, just where lies about the Jewish people can go. And it helps show what some people will do with that warped understanding of who the Jewish people are.

“I also think it’s important to be able to discuss the notion  of security preparation. We had great conversations and communications with law enforcement on every level.

“I literally had the secretary of the department of public safety in North Carolina call me twice the week after the Hamas raid. We had our county sheriff’s department keeping an eye on us, and the sheriff of our county actually came to services on Friday night, just to be with us.”

It’s overwhelmingly important to be prepared, Rabbi Cytron-Walker said. He laid out the elements he thinks every synagogue leader — really, the leaders of any Jewish organization — should have.

First, “it’s important to have people in place who have training on those protocols and know how to respond.” There are a range of possible threats that demand a range of responses. “What happens if there’s graffiti? What happens if it’s something worse? What do you do if someone pulls a fire alarm? What do you do if there’s a medical emergency? What do you do if there’s a missing child? If the electricity goes out?

“Number two, and this is very, very important, is making sure that your relationships with local law enforcement are solid,” Rabbi Cytron-Walker said. He put together a conference in North Carolina. “It was a one-day event with ADL and state and local law enforcement, and the FBI. We had something like 20 or 30 organizations that all came together to understand what resources were available and how to use those resources.

“Everyone should know who their regional ADL directors are,” he continued. “You should know who’s who in your federation, and they should know who you are.

“Those relationships with institutions, with law enforcement, they are very important.

“The third piece is training is to make sure that you have active shooter training, because, unfortunately, in the world we live in, it’s something that all of us can face.

“Make that training available. Teach how to stop the bleed, first aid, and CPR. The more people in an institution can do that, the more people there are who are able to respond appropriately.

“We can’t prepare for everything. October 7 was a horrible example of that. But if we have a level of preparedness, then if, God forbid, something bad happens, we can address it or reduce the worst of the impact because of  that work that we’ve done.

“And once you have all of those things in place, you know what your protocols are and you’re trained on your protocols, we can live our values of hospitality and welcome.”

That’s the positive side of all the preparation.

“One of the ways that we can fight hate is by being welcoming, reaching out to others, and helping others know and understand that we recognize their pain, because we all need love and support,” Rabbi Cytron-Walker said.

Who: Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker

What: Will talk about security, preparedness, hospitality, and his own experiences

When: On Wednesday, November 15, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m.

Where: At Temple Emanu-El of Closter

For whom: The Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey

In partnership with: The Jewish Community Center of Northern New Jersey, the Jewish Association for Developmental Disabilities (J-ADD), the Kaplen JCC in the Palisades, the Jewish Home, and Jewish Family and Children’s Services of Northern New Jersey

For information: Email Laura Freeman at LauraF@jfnnj.org or call her at (201) 820-3923

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