DALLAS — For 11 hours, the hostages talked to the rampaging gunman, hoping he would see them as humans. They were whispering about strategies. And they surreptitiously headed for the nearest exit.
But when the shooter ordered the men to kneel, they decided they had to act. The rabbi grabbed a chair and threw it at the shooter. The hostages ran for the door.
Rabbi, Charlie Cytron-Walker, has been called heroic for his cool head and decisive leadership that led to the dramatic escape of three hostages Saturday from Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, a suburb of Fort Worth, Utah. Texas.
But according to his own account on Monday, and that of another hostage, Jeffrey Cohen, it was years of security training, prompted by threats against synagogues, that allowed them to escape.
In an interview, Rabbi Cytron-Walker said he has participated in at least four separate trainings in recent years, from the Colleyville Police Department, the FBI, the Anti-Defamation League and the Secure Community Network, a non-profit group. profit-making that provides security resources. to Jewish institutions nationwide.
The sessions taught him that “if you find yourself in this situation, you have to do whatever you can,” he said. “It gave me the courage and the sensitivity to act when we could.”
Sudden acts of violence have become a sinister part of American life. In cities and towns, churches, schools and concert halls have become the backdrops for terrifying scenes of chaos.
Synagogues have become even more aware of the 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 shouted anti-Semitic slurs, killed 11 people.
“The world of Jewish community security is considered pre-Tree of Life and post-Tree of Life,” said Stuart Frisch, national training and exercise advisor at the Secure Community Network.
In August, Mr. Frisch gave an hour-long training session to Rabbi Cytron-Walker and several dozen congregants in the sanctuary of Congregation Beth Israel.
Jonathan Greenblatt, who heads the Anti-Defamation League, said Jewish worshipers and synagogue leaders were more actively involved. “They all did active fire drills,” he said. “They all learned how to deal with a hostage situation. They have all learned to deal with terrorism.
Rabbi Cytron-Walker likened the classes he took to CPR training, noting that it’s rarely necessary, but crucial when the time arises.
“This kind of education is necessary for all of us as a society,” he said. “Whether it’s synagogues, grocery stores, mosques or shopping malls, it can happen.”
On Sunday, President Biden called the Colleyville attack an “act of terror” and the FBI was investigating it as a “terrorism-related matter.” The suspect, Malik Faisal Akram, a 44-year-old British citizen, is dead, according to police.
Mitchell D. Silber, executive director of the Community Safety Initiative at the Council on Jewish Community Relations in New York, said there was a palpable fear that copycat attacks could occur in the coming weeks.
“Increasingly, the Jewish community has accepted that, unfortunately, what it means to be Jewish in the United States in 2022 is that your institution must have guards, checkpoints and security,” said Mr Silber.
Training in Colleyville helped the hostages escape.
Cohen, who is identified on the synagogue’s website as its vice president, said in a Facebook post on Monday that forming the Secure Community Network “saved our lives – I’m not speaking in hyperbole here.” .
He described a series of subtle strategies that gave the hostages the chance to escape. When asked to sit down, he chose a row with clear access to an exit. When he got a chance to rub another hostage’s shoulders, he whispered to him about the exit door. And when the pizza was delivered, he suggested another hostage pick it up at the door. Eventually, all of the hostages were within 20 feet of the exit.
At another point, Mr. Cohen used his feet to slowly move chairs in front of him to potentially deflect bullets or shrapnel.
At first there were four hostages, Rabbi Cytron-Walker said, and they managed to establish enough goodwill with the shooter that one of them was freed around 5 p.m. The other three stayed on after dark, but conversations with law enforcement were not going well.
“There were a lot more screams, a lot more threats,” Rabbi Cytron-Walker said.
By 9 p.m., the three men were close enough to an exit and were ready to run “if the chance presented itself,” he said. “There was a real immediacy.
Mr. Cohen wrote that he was ready to wrap his prayer shawl around Mr. Akram’s neck or pulling hand, but he didn’t get the chance.
When Mr. Akram asked the hostages to kneel down, he wrote: “I sat up in my chair, looked at him sternly. I think I slowly moved my head and said NO.
At this point, Rabbi Cytron-Walker told the men to run, threw the chair, and fled to the exit, where a SWAT team led them to safety. The police then entered the building.
“We escaped,” Mr. Cohen wrote on his Facebook account. “We weren’t freed or freed.”
Their escape, however, won’t be the final 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: how open to open its doors.
Mr. Akram was kindly admitted. Rabbi Cytron-Walker said he 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 to warm up. He said he made the man hot tea.
Stacey Silverman, until recently a member of Congregation Beth Israel, wondered why Mr Akram would have been allowed inside on Saturday morning. After the fatal shootings at the Tree of Life Temple in Pittsburgh and Chabad Poway in Poway, Calif., Ms. Silverman said the congregation began locking doors consistently, Ms. Silverman said.
More American synagogues appeared to be adopting security measures like those in Europe, said Mr. Greenblatt, who heads 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 this is now here.”
Over the weekend, the Jewish Federations of North America announced it was accelerating the launch of a $54 million program to dramatically expand its security initiatives. The Secure Community Network is a partner in this effort.
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, who survived the Tree of Life Synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, taken security and situational awareness courses through the Jewish Federation shortly before the shooting there.
“I’m alive today because I had this kind of training,” he explained on Monday. “The sense of sanctuary that places of worship in America could provide is gone.”
As things stand, anxieties over the hostage crisis in Texas have reverberated through communities in the New York area, home to more than one million Jews, the largest Jewish population in the world in outside of Israel.
The New York Police Department has temporarily sent additional patrols in several synagogues and “key Jewish institutions” around the city over the weekend, although they received no credible threats.
At Park East Synagogue, a Modern Orthodox congregation on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Benny Rogosnitzky, a cantor, said leaders were “always on high alert.” Still, after Saturday’s hostage situation sparked deeper concerns among congregants, the synagogue plans to post additional security guards at entrances and closely monitor foot traffic.
“You think if it’s going to Texas, in a small community with so few people attending services, it can really happen anywhere,” Cantor Rogosnitzky said, adding that balancing safety and good 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 open to people. If you walk past our building and enter the synagogue, and you see two or three armed security guards, that does not give you a sense of closeness or intimacy with God.
Marguerite Birnbaum contributed report.