Exclusive: Colleyville Rabbi Talks About Being Held Hostage

Exclusive: Colleyville Rabbi Talks About Being Held Hostage

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker opens up about the synagogue hostage incident, his thoughts on Judaism and why prayers (and just breathing) hold a bit more meaning for him now.

After 37 years with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and now with the AJT, , Jaffe’s focus is lifestyle, art, dining, fashion, and community events with emphasis on Jewish movers and shakers.

The Jan. 15 synagogue hostage incident in Texas made “Colleyville” a household name. Watching the drama unfold on television, American Jews and non-Jews alike wondered what they might do in a similar situation. After some time to process, Congregation Beth Israel’s Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker spoke to the AJT about the events of that day and his thoughts on Judaism and security going forward.

AJT: Did you have any media coaching before being thrust in the national spotlight?
CC-W: No, the only media coaching I have received is with the public relations firm I am working with. I was told to have a focus and intention for each interview.

AJT: Has this changed your outlook on gun control? Will you now carry a gun to services or events?
CC-W: I have no plans to carry a gun to services or events.

AJT: Are there any Jewish texts or prayers that gave you solace or courage during the siege? In the aftermath?
CC-W: The chanting of “Birkat Hagomel” was very meaningful. That is a prayer for redemption after surviving a life-threatening moment. Being able to just pray on Shabbat was also helpful. All of the prayers of the healing service, on Jan. 17, were intentionally chosen. Of course, “Hashkiveinu,” our prayer for shelter and protection, was meaningful. As I said in the Shabbat evening and morning services, all the prayers hold a little more meaning — just being able to pray, just being able to breathe are blessings.

AJT: How has this changed your view of what it means to be a pulpit rabbi?
CC-W: I don’t know that it has changed for me. I took the security courses, the same as my congregants. I feel the same responsibility for my congregation. I feel that being a pulpit rabbi is encompassing — it’s all-encompassing. There are so many different aspects. It’s far more than being a teacher, far more than being a prayer leader, far more than being a pastoral presence. It’s about being there in moments of life and death and in between. It’s about education and trying to live our values. Being in the situation that we were in, I probably felt a little more responsible for everyone. But everyone I was with felt responsible for each other. We were all connected in those moments. So, it does not change my thoughts on the role of a pulpit rabbi.

AJT: Describe the active shooter training you had. How did you assess the choices in front of you?
CC-W: Each course was slightly different. I’ve probably been to about a half-dozen in the past five or six years. Each of them focused on the general idea that if you are in a life-threatening situation, you need to try and do something; you need to act to save yourself and others. Saving yourself is primary. Most of the day we spent looking for opportunities to get free. I would encourage people to take advantage of the courses that are offered. It’s valuable information in the same way that CPR is valuable training. The more people who have this information, the better off we are as a community — not because we are expecting anything bad to happen but, unfortunately, because of the world we live in and the reality that exists. God willing, we will get to a place where we live in a different reality, where this type of instruction is not necessary.

AJT: What inspires you in Judaism? What is the lesson for today’s congregants?
CC-W: Judaism encourages us to live with gratitude; we’re supposed to offer blessings for the little things in our lives, like opening our eyes in the morning, the food that we eat. We offer blessings for our children and our families. We give thanks for our bodies and our souls. We aim to live with gratitude and appreciate the gifts that we have. So many teachings in the Torah are about the values that we’re supposed to live, and we want to strive to live them.

AJT: What was your initial reaction to the statement from the FBI that this was not related to anti-Semitism?
CC-W: I didn’t see the FBI’s initial reference until after it had been corrected. The FBI director called it “anti-Semitic.”

AJT: Share something personal about you.
CC-W: I really enjoy playing board games, cards and reading fantasy books. My favorite author is Brandon Sanderson. I also love to cook. Every year, at the congregation’s Casino Night — our biggest fundraiser — I auction off a gourmet dinner.

AJT: Folks are fascinated by your name. What’s the story?
CC-W: I love this question. I was born in Michigan. On my father’s side, the name changed when they came to the United States. Adena, my wife, was the Cytron and I am the Walker. Instead of one of us losing a last name, we both gained one.

In his spare time, Cytron-Walker likes board games and has an interest in gourmet cooking.

The Forward reported in January that, a few months prior to the incident, Cytron-Walker had resigned after Congregation Beth Israel’s board refused to renew his contract. Suffice it to say, he is now taking his time to regroup after the media storm. Speaking of his next career move, Cytron-Walker said, “I don’t know, to be honest. At this time, that isn’t my focus. My next step is ensuring that my congregation, my family and myself are getting the time and resources we need to heal from this traumatic experience.”

Rabbi Hillel Norry, a third-degree blackbelt in taekwondo, consults with experts in the worship security field and advocates for rabbis who are trained to use armed self-defense methods. Norry quoted Nehemiah, who said, “fight back,” instructing the Jews who were building Jerusalem to carry bricks in one hand and a sword in the other. “Being defenseless is not a Jewish value,” he said. “We must work with law enforcement and national organizations, but that does not free us from our obligation to protect our own lives.”

Following the Jan. 15 hostage incident, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker said that Judaism “encourages us to live with gratitude and offer blessings for the little things in our lives.”

Etz Chaim Senior Rabbi Daniel Dorsch was among those watching the hostage situation unfold on television. Horrified at the breaking news, his father called him to inquire if he knew the Texas rabbi. Yes, Dorsch said, the two of them had participated in an interdenominational Clergy Leadership Incubator Fellowship together prior to the pandemic. They had bonded over the fact that they were the only two rabbis in the cohort who served southern congregations.

“At that time, Charlie impressed me in much the same way as he impressed everyone: through his menschlichkeit, genuineness and kindness,” Dorsch said. “As a pulpit rabbi, I continue to be angry at what transpired. A rabbi welcomed a man in out of the cold, into his congregation, who then took advantage of his compassion. I am greatly concerned about the ramifications this may have on synagogue life, because the last thing we need today is for our synagogues to cease being places of compassion for those who seek help. We cannot close our doors and make them impenetrable fortresses. Jewish ritual and community life has already suffered a tremendous blow in recent years. Jews already have plenty of reasons not to attend services in the era of COVID. In response to this incident, it is my sincere hope that the Jewish community fights back, not by retreating further, but by redoubling our efforts to connect with those in need. The only way not to let the terrorists win is by bringing Rabbi Cytron-Walker’s sense of love, compassion and kindness to our greater Atlanta community.”

After all, attending services should not require an act of courage.


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