By Sharon Wisch-Ray
One year after the hostage crisis at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, the hostages as well as local organizations are reflecting on what impact it has had on them as well as on the Jewish community.
“Since this time last year, ADL Texoma has seen an increase of 44% in antisemitic incidents,” said ADL Texoma Regional Director Stacy Cushing. “We know we have to be vigilant about safety and the collective work it takes to fight antisemitism, racism, Islamophobia or hate by any other name.”
Immediately after the standoff, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker credited ADL and law enforcement for the training that led to the safety of four lives that day. ADL Texoma partners with law enforcement to provide similar pieces of training at schools, organizations and places of worship of various affiliations.
“In times of crisis, we are reminded that we have more allies than enemies in the fight against hate,” said Cushing. “In the aftermath of Colleyville, ADL Texoma met with numerous organizations on the issues of extremism, hate crimes and incidents and antisemitic education to try and prevent future tragedies.”
In an interview with Jodi Rudoren, editor-in-chief of The Forward, 47-year-old Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker said, “You have to understand, I thought I was going to die. And I’m grateful to be here. It’s not complicated, it’s pretty simple: I’m grateful to be alive, and I’m very focused and dedicated on trying to do what I can to live the values of our people.”
He added that he had planned to spend the day in a “life-affirming” way that might involve ice cream. Cytron-Walker, now the rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, composed a “Prayer for Peace,” to mark the one-year anniversary of the crisis he survived (see box, next page).
Jeff Cohen, one of the hostages who is now the president of Congregation Beth Israel, reflected on his experience on the American Jewish Committee podcast “People of the Pod” (https://www.ajc.org/peopleofthepod) earlier this week.
Cohen said that his experience has given him a platform to make sure that training provided by organizations like the Secure Community Network (SCN), law enforcement and other organizations continues and that people continue to take it. Cohen said it’s better to be overtrained, and used the example of why folks wear seatbelts as an analogy.
“Nobody gets in their car and says, I think I’m going to have an accident today, so I’ll put on my seatbelt. No, you put on your seatbelt. Well, partly because it’s the law, but mostly because you want to protect yourself in the unlikely event that you have an accident. And this training needs to be the same kind of thing.”
Bradley Orsini, a former FBI agent and senior national security advisor of SCN, concurred. He said repetition of training is crucial. In 2022, SCN trained more than 40,000 members of the Jewish community across the United States.
“I get to look at Jeff today because he had that wherewithal to take not just one, not just two, but several trainings. And so, for our community, if it’s offered, take it. Think about it. We want you to be situationally aware, it’s not to scare our community. It’s really to empower our community,” Orsini said.
SCN will offer an online webinar from 1 to 2:30 p.m. Eastern time (noon to 1:30 p.m. Central time) Thursday, Jan. 19 on Surviving Hostage Situations. The webinar is free and registration is available at https://bit.ly/3iEB57I.
Numerous other resources are available at the SCN website, www.securecommunitynetwork.org.
For Cohen, his experience has also made him passionate about calling out all forms of hatred. The time to ignore hateful comments and look away at gatherings with family and friends has passed, Cohen said. “We need to challenge it,” he said. And once challenged, if the person continues, Cohen suggests, “There’s only one proper response: ‘I’m sorry, that language is not allowed here. You need to leave now.’” He added that each of us as individuals needs to set the example that that kind of behavior is not right, funny or polite.
Numerous organizations in North Texas continue to work on the issues raised by the surviving hostages — security training and target hardening, education and standing up to antisemitism and hate speech. Among those working tirelessly are the ADL; AJC; Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum; Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas, its Jewish Community Relations Council and its Community Security Initiative; Jewish Federation of Fort Worth and Tarrant County; and the Secure Community Network. It is also paramount that individuals and organizations avail themselves of the opportunities presented to make the Jewish community as safe as possible for all its members.