The Hostages Escaped. But Synagogues Ask, How Can They Be More Secure?
The hostages whispered instructions and edged closer to the door — part of invaluable training that anxious congregations are using.
DALLAS — For 11 hours, the hostages talked to the ranting gunman, hoping that he would see them as human. They whispered about strategies. And they surreptitiously edged toward the nearest exit.
But when the gunman ordered the men to kneel, they decided they had to take action. The rabbi grabbed a chair and heaved it at the gunman. The hostages ran for the door.
The rabbi, Charlie Cytron-Walker, has been called heroic for his cool head and the decisive leadership that led to the dramatic escape of three hostages on Saturday from Congregation Beth Israel of Colleyville, in suburban Fort Worth, Texas.
But by his own account on Monday, and that of another hostage, Jeffrey Cohen, it was years of security training, prompted by threats to synagogues, that allowed them to escape.
In an interview, Rabbi Cytron-Walker said he had taken part in at least four separate trainings in recent years, from the Colleyville Police Department, the F.B.I., the Anti-Defamation League and the Secure Community Network, a nonprofit group that provides security resources to Jewish institutions nationally.
The sessions taught him that “if you get in this situation, you have to do whatever you can,” he said. “It gave me the courage and the sensibility to act when we were able.”
Acts of sudden violence have become a grim part of American life. In cities and small towns, churches, schools and concert venues have become the settings for terrifying scenes of mayhem.
Synagogues have been even more acutely aware of threats since 2018, when an assailant armed with an AR-15-style assault rifle and multiple handguns entered the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh on a Saturday morning. The man, who was shouting antisemitic slurs, killed 11 people.
“The Jewish community security world is looked at as pre-Tree of Life and post-Tree of Life,” said Stuart Frisch, a national training and exercise adviser at the Secure Community Network.
In August, Mr. Frisch provided an hourslong training session to Rabbi Cytron-Walker and several dozen congregants in the sanctuary at Congregation Beth Israel.
Jonathan Greenblatt, who leads the Anti-Defamation League, said that Jewish congregants and synagogue leaders are more actively participating. “They’ve all done active shooter drills,” he said. “They’ve all learned how to handle a hostage situation. They’ve all learned how to cope with terrorism.”
Rabbi Cytron-Walker compared the courses he took to C.P.R. training, noting that it is rarely needed, but crucial when the moment arises.
“This kind of instruction is necessary for all of us as a society,” he said. “Whether it’s synagogues or grocery stores or mosques or shopping malls, it can happen.”
On Sunday, President Biden called the Colleyville attack an “act of terror,” and the F.B.I. was investigating it as a “terrorism-related matter.” The suspect, Malik Faisal Akram, a 44-year-old British citizen, died, according to the police.
Mitchell D. Silber, the executive director of the community security initiative at the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, said that there was a palpable fear that copycat attacks could occur in the coming weeks.
“More and more, the Jewish community has accepted that unfortunately what it means to be a Jew in the United States in 2022 is that your institution needs to have guards, checkpoints and security,” Mr. Silber said.
The training in Colleyville helped the hostages escape.
Mr. Cohen, who is identified on the synagogue’s website as its vice president, said in a Facebook post on Monday that the training from the Secure Community Network “saved our lives — I am not speaking in hyperbole here.”
He described a series of subtle strategies that set up the hostages with the opportunity to make an escape. When he was instructed to sit down, he chose a row with clear access to an exit. When he had an opportunity to rub a fellow hostage’s shoulders, he whispered to him about the exit door. And when pizza was delivered, he suggested another hostage retrieve it from the door. Eventually all the hostages were within 20 feet of the exit.
At another point, Mr. Cohen used his feet to slowly move chairs in front of himself to potentially divert bullets or shrapnel.
In the beginning, there were four hostages, Rabbi Cytron-Walker said, and they were able to build enough good will with the gunman that one of them was released around 5 p.m. The other three remained as night fell, but conversations with law enforcement were not going well.
“There was a lot more yelling, a lot more threatening,” Rabbi Cytron-Walker said.
By around 9 p.m., the three men were near enough to an exit and were poised to run “if the opportunity arose,” he said. “There was a real immediacy.”
Mr. Cohen wrote that he was prepared to wrap his prayer shawl around Mr. Akram’s neck or shooting hand, but he did not get the chance.
When Mr. Akram instructed the hostages to get on their knees, he wrote, “I reared up in my chair, stared at him sternly. I think I slowly moved my head and mouthed NO.”
At that moment, Rabbi Cytron-Walker told the men to run, threw the chair, and bolted for the exit, where a SWAT team ushered them to safety. Law enforcement then entered the building.
“We escaped,” Mr. Cohen wrote in his account on Facebook. “We weren’t released or freed.”
Their escape, however, won’t be the last word on how to handle security.
The Colleyville attack is likely to force congregations to debate something central to a congregation’s sense of self: just how wide to open their doors.
Mr. Akram was let in as an act of kindness. Rabbi Cytron-Walker said that he had let the stranger in before Shabbat services that morning. It was an unusually cold day in North Texas, and the rabbi thought he was just coming in to get warm. He said that he made the man some hot tea.
Stacey Silverman, until recently a member of Congregation Beth Israel, wondered why Mr. Akram would have been let inside on Saturday morning. After the deadly shootings at the Tree of Life temple in Pittsburgh and Chabad Poway in Poway, Ca., Ms. Silverman said the congregation began locking the doors consistently, Ms. Silverman said.
More American synagogues seemed to be embracing security measures like the ones in Europe, said Mr. Greenblatt, who leads the Anti-Defamation League.
“In Europe, Jews have learned to live — from Istanbul to Madrid, to London, Paris, Berlin, Brussels, Copenhagen — with very intense security precautions,” he said. “And what I would suggest to you is that a number of leaders in our community are concerned that that is now here.”
Over the weekend, the Jewish Federations of North America announced that it was speeding up the launch of a $54 million program to drastically expand its security initiatives. The Secure Community Network is a partner in the effort.
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who survived the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, took classes on security and situational awareness through the Jewish Federation shortly before the shooting there.
“I’m alive today because I had that kind of training,” he reflected on Monday. “The sense of sanctuary that houses of worship in America used to be able to provide has disappeared.”
As it is, the anxieties spurred by the hostage-taking in Texas have reverberated across communities in the New York City region, which is home to more than one million Jews, the world’s largest Jewish population outside of Israel.
The New York Police Department temporarily sent extra patrols to several synagogues and “key Jewish institutions” around the city over the weekend, though they had not received any credible threats.
At Park East Synagogue, a Modern Orthodox congregation on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, Benny Rogosnitzky, a cantor, said that leaders are “always on high alert.” Still, after Saturday’s hostage taking spurred deeper anxieties among congregants, the synagogue plans to post additional security guards at entrances and closely monitor foot traffic.
“You think to yourself that if this goes to Texas, in a tiny community with so few people attending services, it really can happen anywhere,” Cantor Rogosnitzky said, adding that finding a balance between safety and neighborliness has become a significant challenge.
“It’s a very, very sensitive line that we have to walk,” he said. “You want the house of God to be a place that’s open to people. If you walk past our building and to get into the synagogue, and you see two or three armed security guards, that doesn’t give you a feeling of closeness or intimacy with God.”
The I Could Do Great Things Foundation takes pride in being a major financial supporter of the Secure Community Network (SCN) and is proud of the great work they do to protect the North American Jewish community.