Rabbi Brad Levenberg of Temple Sinai learned that a friend and colleague was being held hostage in his Texas synagogue from texts sent by fellow members of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion class of 2006.
Levenberg has known Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker of Congregation Beth Israel, in the Dallas suburb of Colleyville, since their first year of rabbinical school in Israel and then at HUC’s Cincinnati campus, where they were ordained.
Cytron-Walker and three congregants were held hostage Saturday for about 11 hours by an armed man who claimed to also have explosives. The incident ended with the hostages unharmed and the hostage-taker dead.
Levenberg followed the news from Los Angeles, where he was chaperoning a trip by 20 11th-graders from Temple Sinai. He said that the feeling among the HUC ’06 alumni was that “if there’s anyone who’s going to be able to defuse this crisis, it would be Charlie.”
The incident began about 10:40 a.m. Central, during Shabbat morning services. The service was live-streamed and, as word of the incident spread, upwards of 8,000 people tuned in. They were able to see the pulpit, but no other activity.
Before the live feed dropped at about 2 p.m. Central, the hostage-taker could be heard demanding to speak with his “sister,” Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist who was convicted in 2010 of trying to murder American military officers in Afghanistan. Siddiqui is serving an 86-year sentence at FMC (Federal Medical Center) Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas.
One hostage, said to be an elderly man, was released about 5 p.m. Central. Rabbi Cytron-Walker and the other two remaining hostages were freed shortly before 9:30 p.m. Central, after an FBI hostage rescue team entered the synagogue. Video from Dallas television station WFAA showed three people fleeing through a door. A man holding a gun briefly appeared, then returned inside. About 20 seconds later, the sounds of gunfire and a flash bang grenade were heard.
Word of the hostages’ freedom first came in a tweet from Texas Gov. Greg Abbott: “Prayers answered. All hostages are out alive and safe.”
CNN reported Sunday that the suspect — identified as Malik Faisal Akram, a 44-year-old British citizen — was killed by FBI agents. An attorney for Siddiqui said that Akram was not her brother.
The FBI late Sunday issued a statement that said: “This is a terrorism-related matter, in which the Jewish community was targeted, and is being investigated by the Joint Terrorism Task Force.” That reversed a statement made late Saturday by Matt DeSarno, the head of the FBI’s Dallas field office, who told reporters that the hostage taker “was singularly focused on one issue and it was not specifically related to the Jewish community.”
Levenberg, who learned that the incident had ended when texted by a writer for the AJT, had only praise for Cytron-Walker.
“From the minute I met him, and he still presents the same way today, he is among the most thoughtful, humble, kind, and considerate people I know,” Levenberg said late Saturday. “He is always the first to laugh at a joke. He’s always the first to lean in when someone is talking about something controversial. He’ll literally lean in to be more attentive and present. He’s never the person who is doodling during important conversations or checking email. He’s someone who can be fully present. When you’re with him, he makes you think you are the center of his world.”
Levenberg added, “If anyone uses a phrase other than ‘Charlie is quite a mensch,’ then they don’t know Charlie. He is that warm and haimish guy, the typical person you’d want as your rabbi.”
Word of the hostage-taking at a Texas synagogue prompted Jews across America to recall the Oct. 27, 2018, massacre of 11 Shabbat morning worshippers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, and the shootings six months to the day later, on April 27, 2019, at the Chabad of Poway, Calif., in which one woman died.
When it was all over, Levenberg said, “Tonight we celebrate and tomorrow we reflect.”
Levenberg acknowledged that “This — and moments like this — of course bring to light our greatest fears and cause us all to rethink what policies and procedures we have in place.”
Those policies and procedures are a fulltime concern for Neil Rabinovitz, the community security director, who works for the Secure Community Network in conjunction with the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta.
Rabinovitz was on conference calls with SCN officials Saturday and stayed in touch with metro Atlanta police and sheriff’s departments. He said that DeKalb County police Saturday increased their patrols in the Toco Hills area, which is home to numerous synagogues and a significant portion of the Orthodox community.
The challenge for the Jewish community remains “how to be welcoming and open and at the same time be secure,” Rabinovitz said. “It can be done.”
Rabinovitz has had ongoing discussions with local Jewish organizations, including synagogues and schools, about security. The keys, he said, are controlling access to buildings housing Jewish institutions and “situational awareness,” people being vigilant and calling law enforcement if they see something suspicious. He also recommends that synagogues hire armed, off-duty law enforcement personnel to be present outside as a visible deterrent.
Recognizing that the expense can be an issue, Rabinovitz and SCN work with Jewish nonprofits to apply for funds through the NonProfit Security Grant Program administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. In fiscal year 2021, the program made available $180 million.
In a statement issued Sunday, Sen. Jon Ossoff said, “Today I spoke with rabbis and Jewish leaders across Georgia and the leadership at the FBI’s Atlanta Field Office. My staff and I are standing by to connect Georgia’s Jewish organizations and congregations — and all faith communities threatened by violence — with federal, state, or local law enforcement resources.”
In the aftermath of the Texas incident, Interfaith Atlanta (formerly known as Faith Alliance of Metro Atlanta) scheduled an online “Gathering for Strength and Healing” session Sunday night with representatives from the Jewish and other faith communities. In addition to Interfaith Atlanta president Rabbi Ellen Nemhauser, who is coordinator of the Union of Reform Judaism’s intro to Judaism program, speakers included Rabbi Ron Segal of Temple Sinai, Rabbi Lauren Henderson of Congregation Or Hadash and Rabbi Emeritus Joshua Lesser of Congregation Beit Haverim.
In a statement issued Sunday, the Atlanta regional office of the American Jewish Committee said: “We are breathing a deep sigh of relief that all of the hostages were safely rescued at Congregation Beth Israel. This is yet another reminder that the Jewish community is on edge because of the rise of anti-Semitism. Just last week, AJC Atlanta had been reaching out to local elected officials, to inform them of the challenges we are facing as a Jewish community. This experience over Shabbat is just another example of synagogues being targets.”
In a Twitter post, the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta wrote: “We are grateful that those who endured this returned to their families unharmed. We understand that yesterday’s events were traumatic to those throughout the Jewish community. Synagogues are a place of worship and none should worship in fear.”
Israel’s Consul General to the Southeast, Amb. Anat Sultan-Dodan, tweeted on Sunday: “So relieved #ColleyvilleSynagogue hostages are safe thanks to authorities & law enforcement. But still so concerned. Many expressed thoughts, prayers & support yesterday. So important but not enough. We should all ask ourselves what we are *actively* doing to combat #antisemitism.”
During the incident, Democratic state Rep. Mike Wilensky, the only Jewish member of the General Assembly, tweeted: “I am truly scared, saddened & angry. When will hate against Jews stop? As the only Jewish person in the whole GA legislature, it would mean a lot if you stand with me against anti-Semitism & violence against all.”
- Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker
- Congregation Beth Israel
- Rabbi Brad Levenberg
- Temple Sinai
- Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion
- Aafia Siddiqui
- FBI hostage rescue
- Neil Rabinovitz
- Secure Community Network
- jewish federation of greater atlanta
- Sen. Jon Ossoff
- FBI’s Atlanta Field Office
- Interfaith Atlanta
- Rabbi Ellen Nemhauser
- Gathering for Strength and Healing
- American Jewish Committee
- Israel’s Consul General to the Southeast
- Anat Sultan-Dodan
- Dave Schechter