'I am grateful to be alive,' says Colleyville rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker

Meet the rabbi who was one of four people taken hostage on Saturday in Colleyville, Texas • “I bonded with him,” and "really like him," the hostage-taker said.

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

On Saturday, four people were held hostage inside a Reform synagogue in Texas by a man demanding that a known terrorist be released from prison.

After 11 hours, they were freed. One of them was the rabbi of the Congregation Beth Israel (CBI) synagogue, Charlie Cytron-Walker, a man known for his long history of giving and charitable work.

"I am thankful and filled with appreciation for all of the vigils and prayers and love and support, all of the law enforcement and first responders who cared for us, all of the security training that helped save us," Cytron-Walker wrote on Facebook. "I am grateful for my family. I am grateful for the CBI Community, the Jewish Community, the Human Community. I am grateful that we made it out. I am grateful to be alive."

The rabbi is a married father of two who began to work as the synagogue's rabbi in 2006. CBI was founded in 1998 as an informal community in a rapidly growing suburb of Fort Worth, located just miles from the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. Cytron-Walker was their full-time rabbi. 

Originally from Michigan, Cytron-Walker and his family belonged to Congregation Shaarey Zedek in East Lansing. He was president of both Lansing’s temple youth group and the National Federation of Temple Youth’s Michigan region while in high school.

Cytron-Walker graduated from the University of Michigan in 1998 where he met his wife, Adena, where they were both students. She is a vice president of a diversity-focused Fort Worth organization.

He went on to work at Focus: HOPE, an organization pledged to "intelligent and practical action to overcome racism, poverty and injustice," according to its website.

He then became the assistant director of the Amherst Survival Center, providing support to local businesses, organizations, faith communities and individuals through programs designed to help people with their most basic needs.

He learned briefly in Israel as a part of his studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion at its Jerusalem campus, on top of its Cincinnati campus, from which he received his rabbinical ordination. His rabbinical thesis was titled, “Jewish Service-Learning: Integrating Talmud Torah and Ma’asim Tovim.”

He serves on the steering committee of a local interfaith organization headed by a Unitarian Universalist church, and local Muslim leaders spoke out in support of him on Saturday. One, Alia Salem, the founder of an advocacy group exposing abuse among Muslim faith leaders and a self-proclaimed “vocal supporter” of the movement to free the woman mentioned by the hostage-taker, said on Twitter that she has been a friend of the Cytron-Walkers for 15 years.

“They are the kindest, most gentle, and loving people who have been absolutely rock-solid friends and allies not only to me but to the entire Muslim community through thick and thin,” Salem wrote.

“Charlie has devoted his life personally and professionally to caring for those in need,” said Rabbi Aaron Starr, a childhood friend.

Colleyville’s police chief called Cytron-Walker a close personal friend. Even the man who attacked the synagogue praised him, saying on the live-streamed audio that the rabbi had welcomed him into the building when he knocked on the door asking whether the synagogue was a shelter. “I bonded with him,” the man said. “I really like him.”

"Since Rabbi Charlie arrived at CBI, he has worked to bring a sense of spirituality, compassion and learning into the lives of our community," the synagogue's website says. "He loves finding a connection with people of every age and strives to carry forward the CBI tradition of welcoming all who enter into our congregation, from interfaith families to LGBT individuals and families to those seeking to find a spiritual home in Judaism, along with all others."

“Our rabbi is a wonderful human being,” Ellen Smith, who grew up at Congregation Beth Israel, said about Rabbi Charlie during an online vigil while he was being held hostage inside the synagogue building.

Andrew Lapin/JTA contributed to this report.