The tight-knit congregation at a Texas synagogue where four people were held hostage by an armed captor during a 10-hour standoff over the weekend traces its roots back to a gathering organized over 20 years ago by a handful of families who were new to the area.
“It was a Jewish holiday and we were just feeling kind of isolated and unsure who else was living here that was Jewish,” Anna Salton Eisen, a founder and former president of Congregation Beth Israel, said Sunday.
Since that start in 1998, the congregation in the Fort Worth suburb of Colleyville has grown to about 140 families, built its own synagogue and hired a rabbi known throughout the area for building bridges with other faiths.
Eisen said she has been bowled over by the intensity of the support the congregants have gotten during the hostage ordeal, but that she also has gotten a “painful awakening” that “our history is now going to be changed.”
Eisen, who noted security at their synagogue has been taken “very seriously, very seriously” for a long time, said a message of support from a member the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 worshippers were killed in a 2018 attack, made her realize “this is part of who we are and how we move forward and respond to this is something we have to think about.”
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life, who survived the massacre there, America’s deadliest antisemitic attack, said in a statement that alongside the relief that the Texas hostages were safe, “my heart is heavy.”
“While everyone is physically safe, they are also forever changed,” Myers said. “My own community knows too well the pain, trauma and lost sense of security that comes when violence forces its way in, especially into our sacred spaces.”
The standoff in Texas ended around 9 p.m. Saturday when the last three hostages, who included Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, escaped from the gunman and an FBI SWAT team rushed in. The captor, Malik Faisal Akram, 44, was killed. A fourth hostage was released earlier.
Cytron-Walker told “CBS Mornings” that he threw a chair at his captor and they rushed out. He credited past security training for getting them out safely.
Cytron-Walker said returning to the synagogue “won’t necessarily be an easy thing but it’s a really important thing.”
Andrew Marc Paley, a Dallas rabbi who was called to the scene to help families and hostages upon their release, said that by all accounts, Cytron-Walker was a calm and comforting presence during the ordeal.
“He made every effort to those who were with him to sort of remain calm and to, you know, diffuse the situation to the best they can,” he said.
Jawaid Alam, president of the Islamic Center of Southlake, told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram that Cytron-Walker is a personal friend who has promoted peace and cooperation across faiths.
“He is a peace-loving person, a Rabbi and Jewish leader, but a true friend of the Muslim community,” Alam said.
The rabbi at Congregation Shaarey Zedek, the synagogue in East Lansing, Michigan, that Cytron-Walker attended while growing up said in a message to congregants there that she was with his mother on Saturday as the ordeal unfolded.
Rabbi Amy Bigman wrote in the message that while it was difficult to see another instance of antisemitism, they have taken comfort in the outpouring of “prayers and good wishes.” She wrote that while she knew the events in Texas “raised our sense of alarm,” she hoped her congregants would not stay away and noted security had been “greatly increased” over the years.
Halie Soifer, CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, also grew up attending Congregation Shaarey Zedek and remembered Cytron-Walker’s leadership as a student in the youth group.
“From everything I can tell, he’s very similar today to what he was like then, which is someone who is driven by a sense of deeply rooted Jewish values and activism and belief that we’re all equal and efforts to build ties and care for others,” Soifer said.
Cytron-Walker has been the Texas synagogue’s first full-time rabbi since 2006. The synagogue’s website says the married father of two loves welcoming everyone from “interfaith families to LGBT individuals and families to those seeking to find a spiritual home in Judaism, along with all others.”
“We have newcomers, we have people who have been here a longtime and have seen each other’s children grow up and have been together through all the ups and downs — the joys and hardships of life,” Eisen said. “We’re tight-knit, we’re not a very large congregation.”
Eisen said she knew they were welcome in the community, but didn’t quite realize how much until the outpouring came as the ordeal unfolded.
“Now I really feel welcome here. It was a life-changing thing,” she said.
Eisen, who has been cautious about going out during the pandemic to protect her mother, a Holocaust survivor who turns 100 on Saturday, said she started watching the Facebook livestream of the hostage-taking during the services when alerted by another member.
“It felt impossible to watch and impossible not to watch,” she said.
It was especially hard, she said, to tell her mother what had happened. “It was so difficult for me, because she thought this can’t happen here,” Eisen said.