By Sharon Wisch-Ray
One month after Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and three of his congregants at Congregation Beth Israel escaped safely from being held hostage by an Islamist terrorist, the rabbi remains grateful to be alive and hopeful.
Cytron-Walker spoke with the TJP via Zoom Feb. 15.
“Everything feels like a blessing right now. That hasn’t gone away. That’s a good thing. I know it’ll probably fade eventually. But everything really does feel like a blessing right now.”
The congregation is healing
Cytron-Walker said that people are handling the fallout of the trauma they experienced Jan. 15 in a variety of ways. Many congregants, he said, are seeking the help offered by Jewish Family Services of Fort Worth and Tarrant County and other mental health resources.
“I have learned throughout the years and continue to stress to my community [that] we have to be aware of our mental health,” said Cytron-Walker. “We have to care for us, for ourselves, in body and we have to care for ourselves in spirit and we have to care for ourselves emotionally and mentally.
“For years and years, since the congregation’s inception, Beth Israel has had a really powerful relationship with the Jordan Harris Foundation. And, their tagline is to bring light to the conversation around depression and suicide,” he said. “What incredible supporters and advocates for mental health we have within our community.”
According to the rabbi, the congregation is holding both services and religious school in-person and off-site. The synagogue is being repaired with the expectation that it will be ready in time for Passover services.
In the meantime, he said, congregants are looking forward to Purim and busy working on this year’s Purim shpiel, which is always a favorite event.
The Colleyville rabbi, affectionately known as “Rabbi Charlie,” pointed out some key themes for Jews and non-Jews alike that he hoped would keep faith communities safer and more connected with one another.
As he has emphasized in multiple statements, including testifying before the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security earlier this month, Cytron-Walker said that the relationship, planning and collaboration with the synagogue’s security team as well as training from the Secure Communities Network, ADL and law enforcement ahead of the crisis last month were key to his and the other hostages’ survival. For example, his ability to text and email the Colleyville police chief from his cell phone in real time as the day progressed was likely life-saving.
“When the police have been in your building, and you have a relationship with them, it helps because they had more than a basic understanding of the layout,” Cytron-Walker said. “Those relationships mattered in our situation, and helped with the best possible outcome that we could have envisioned.”
In addition, Cytron-Walker said he continues to be overwhelmed by the amount of support that Beth Israel has been shown not only by Jews around the country and around the world, but by the interfaith community.
“I’ve been told by many from around the country that so many Jews were in there with us, were terrified with us, were horrified with us. And I’ve been told that so many Muslims and so many Christians and so many people who are Baha’i and Hindu and from all different backgrounds, that they were with us in that moment. That’s the kind of thing that we need when it comes to being with other people and that’s why those relationships are so important,” he said. “If schools who had a shooting threat, or historically Black colleges and universities that are receiving bomb threats, if they got that kind of love and support from the world because [our society] said that those kinds of threats and that kind of harassment and that kind of violence is not OK anywhere, we’d be living in a different world.”
Cytron-Walker said that there isn’t a shred of doubt that the terrorist who took him hostage held a fervent antisemitic world view. “He really believed that Jews control the world. And unfortunately, he’s not the only one,” the rabbi said.
Cytron-Walker believes we need to call out antisemitism whenever we see it and Jews should stand up for themselves. He acknowledged that this can be hard for some people to do, especially in North Texas.
“I would say this is our collective challenge in the Jewish community and in our country. We have to be able to stand up for ourselves in every part of our community. And the hope would be that we wouldn’t be standing alone.”
We are all created in God’s image
Cytron-Walker emphasized the idea of b’tzelem Elohim and that if more people understood that value, it would go a long way to healing some of the fractures in the world today.
“One of the most basic values that rabbis talk about all the time is that we’re all created in God’s image. What does that look like if we live that value? Each and every day? If we focus on that sense of humanity, that idea that every child deserves that sense of love? Those are also not just pie-in-the-sky ideals. Those are intended to be lived,” he said. “But that’s why we have mitzvot about how we want to bring peace, not just within the Jewish community, but between us and the non-Jewish community.”
To reinforce the importance of cross-cultural connections and relationships, Cytron-Walker said he hoped people would invite friends to their homes for Passover Seder and other Jewish holidays and that members of the Jewish community would get to experience the traditions and cultures of their non-Jewish friends.
“It is in that understanding of one another and people’s differences and cultures that real progress can be made.”