Colleyville rabbi to 'Post': The gunman believed Jews control the world

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, the man at the center of the Colleyville synagogue hostage crisis, speaks with Jerusalem Post correspondent Tovah Lazaroff.

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker speaks with The Jerusalem Post's Tovah Lazaroff

In the moments when Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and the other two hostages in the Colleyville, Texas, synagogue were most afraid they would die, they acted quickly to escape.

“I whispered ‘are you ready to go?’” Walker-Cytron recalled in a Zoom interview with The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. “I didn’t care if the gunmen heard.”

The perpetrator’s gun “was not in a good position,” so Cytron-Walker threw a chair at him, distracting him. Then he ran with the other hostages through a nearby exit door, he said, recalling the moments they fled Congregation Beth Israel, where he has been the rabbi for 15 years.

Now that he thinks about it days later, that moment seems unbelievable to him. He had not known he would have the power to act.

“I thew a chair at a gunman, that is unbelievable,” he said. “I am really glad that I had the courage to do so.”

He said there was a one-in-a-billion chance that the man who walked through his synagogue door seeking help while they were in the building to hold Saturday morning Sabbath services on a live feed would actually be a gunman that would take him and three others hostage.

 Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, where four hostages were held. (credit: JTA) Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, where four hostages were held. (credit: JTA)

British citizen Malik Faisal Akram, 44, had taken the four people hostage in a failed attempt to secure the release of Pakistani scientist Aafia Siddiqui, who was being held in a nearby jail.

The incident and the successful escape of the hostages – one of whom was released during the day and the others who fled through the door – has placed Cytron-Walker in the eye of the media.

He has recalled the moments in the synagogue, speaking of the dangers of antisemitism and the need for security in houses of worship, and has looked to find ways for himself and his community to heal.

This week he has encouraged members to care for themselves and to care for each other.

He has also asked them to write down what they are grateful for in their lives.

“We have a lot of healing to do,” he said. “If we can be thankful for what we have, that is something that can begin a healing process.”

On Friday and Saturday, he will once again lead services, but at an alternative site and not in the building. He said it was important for the community to come together and establish a routine.

Cytron-Walker said he does not believe that he will be fearful when he leads services or finally returns to his building.

“I am going to walk into the synagogue like I always do,” said Cytron-Walker. “That has been my home for over 15 years, and it is still my home. It is a spiritual place and I can not wait to go back in.”

“I know people are scared,” he said, not just those in his congregation but throughout the Jewish world.

Cytron-Walker emphasized, however, that he saw the attack as a “random occurrence.”

During his time as the rabbi at the congregation, “I have led thousands of services,” and “this is the first time I have had anything like this happen.”

“Terrorism creates that sense of fear,” but it is unlikely that fear would play out in reality, he said.

Last Saturday, “out of all the services that were held throughout the world, I was the only hostage situation.”

No one was taken hostage the week prior to that, he said.

He credited the half-dozen security training courses he had taken over the past years, his rabbinical experience and classes, as well as the synagogue security program with helping him and the others survive the experience.

“That gave me the courage and the knowhow to act when the opportunity arose,” he said.

His experience living in Israel during the second intifada when he was a rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College also helped.

It gave him “a sense of perspective in terms of how to respond in times of crisis, as well as how to maintain a sense of perspective when difficult things and traumatic things are happening around us.”

Throughout the day, Cytron-Walker said, “I was going through basic checklists in my mind, gaging his [the gunmen’s] behavior.”

Cytron-Walker said that he did his best to create a personal connection to the gunman, “making sure that I got a chance to talk with him one-on-one.”

Although there were a few moments when the hostages were able to talk among themselves, for the most part, “we didn’t have a chance to hide and move” or to “leave the situation.”

They did their best to be close to the exit, he added.

The courses had taught him to look for a moment to exploit. “We were looking for some kind of a moment all day long. We were trying to figure out how we could do it and how we could do it in a way that all of us could get out,” he said.

Over the course of the day, “we had built up some goodwill. He [the gunmen] was able to see us as people.”

Cytron-Walker did not hesitate to label the hostage-taking as a hate crime against Jews.

“Of course this was an antisemitic attack,” Cytron-Walker emphasized. “This person came in because he targeted a synagogue,” and he did so for reasons that are classically antisemitic.

“He thought that Jews control the world,” which is an understanding that is untrue and that is “antisemitic at its essence,” Cytron-Walker said.

The gunman, however, “believed” this wholeheartedly, he said. “He thought that America would save Jewish lives over and above anyone else.”

It’s a presumption that is “so damaging” because it goes in line with the other antisemitic tropes such as “Jews control the media, or the government,” Cytron-Walker said.

So many people assume these prejudicial ideas and make offhanded remarks about it, he explained.

“This is the kind of thing that needs to be called out every time,” Cytron-Walker said.

He likened these falsehoods with the prejudice against others such as Evangelicals, African-Americans, Latinos, Muslims and the LGBTQ community.

Similarly, he said, Republicans make presumptions about Democrats, those in the Likud party in Israel make assumptions about the coalition, secular Jews do this with haredi Jews, and vice versa, he said.

“We need solidarity against prejudice and hatred across the board,” said Cytron-Walker. “We make so many assumptions about other groups of people and we need to stop. And if we can not stop we need to do a much better job at calling it out. All of our lives are at stake. This is the kind of work that is going to lead to greater healing within our society and our world. We need to remember our humanity,” he said of the global community, adding that this is true as well for the Jewish community.

“We need to remember that we are Am Yisrael (the people of Israel),” he said.