Repaired Texas synagogue reopening months after hostage crisis
In the three months since Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and three of his congregants were held at gunpoint in their Texas synagogue, new carpet has been laid in the sanctuary, the walls have been repainted, the entry retiled and new doors installed. He said it has been healing to watch.
“Each time I came back in, I got to see us moving forward,” Cytron-Walker said.
After the 10-hour standoff on Jan. 15 ended with the escape of the remaining hostages and an FBI tactical team rushing in and killing the gunman, the synagogue was left with broken doors and windows, bullet holes and shattered glass.
Anna Salton Eisen, a founder of the synagogue, said the scene reminded her of abandoned synagogues still marked with bullets from World War II that she saw while visiting Poland in 1998 with her parents — both Holocaust survivors.
“I was standing in my synagogue this time, and it was just empty and silent, and it showed the marks of the violence that had occurred,” she said.
Eisen said she believes the congregation’s return will help the healing process.
“We are not defeated and we are not going to live in fear,” she said.
Leaders of the congregation of about 160 families said that while holding services at a Methodist church during the repairs, they’ve been struck by the outpouring of love and support they’ve received.
They said they want to focus on fighting antisemitism, which led the gunman to their synagogue.
“It’s my hope and my prayer that there’s greater awareness about how damaging hate can be,” said Cytron-Walker, who will start a new job in July at Temple Emanuel in Winston-Salem, N.C.
He was preparing for a morning service that Saturday in January when a stranger came to the synagogue’s door. The man said he’d spent the winter night outside, and Cytron-Walker welcomed him in, chatting with him and making him tea.
Then, as Cytron-Walker and three of his congregants prayed — and others participated online — they heard a click from a gun.
The stranger, British national Malik Faisal Akram, took the four people present hostage, and during the standoff demanded the release of a Pakistani woman serving a lengthy prison sentence in Fort Worth after being convicted of trying to kill U.S. troops.
The hostages have said Akram cited antisemitic stereotypes, believing that Jews wielded the power to get the woman released.
One hostage, 85-year-old Lawrence Schwartz, was released after about six hours. Around 9 p.m., Cytron-Walker threw a chair at Akram, and the rabbi and the other two remaining hostages escaped out a side door.
Cytron-Walker has credited past security training for helping them get out safely, including training he received from the Secure Community Network, founded in 2004 by Jewish organizations in North America.
The hostage-taking in Texas came just over three years after America’s deadliest antisemitic attack, when a gunman killed 11 worshipers from three congregations meeting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue.
“We believe the training is absolutely critical,” said Michael Masters, Secure Community Network’s national director and chief executive. “You very rarely rise to an occasion in a critical incident — you fall back to your level of training.”
He said the nonprofit trained more than 17,000 people last year, and surpassed that number in the first three months of 2022.
Congregation Beth Israel President Michael Finfer said Thursday that the synagogue would continue to do security training and would have “far more police security” than before.
Jeff Cohen, one of the four hostages — and the congregation’s vice president and security director — said he’s excited about returning to their synagogue this week.
“That’s part of that processing,” he said of coming to terms with what had happened there. “It’s to look at where we’re going to be.”
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