'We can't live in fear': Texas Rabbi held hostage says he'd give a stranger tea again
It began with a knock on the door.
Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker let the man who had knocked into his synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, in the suburbs of Forth Worth, Texas.
The man was cold so Rabbi Charlie, as he’s known, made him a cup of hot tea.
The Saturday morning Shabbat service started.
Rabbi Charlie stood on the bimah, the raised platform at the front of a synagogue. He began a prayer.
“I was facing away from the congregation. When Jews pray, we pray towards Jerusalem,” he said.
Then, he heard a click.
“I thought it sounded like it could have been a gun,” he said. “When I turned around, everything in the congregation looked normal.”
Rabbi Charlie finished the prayer and during the silent one that followed, he stepped down to talk to the man to whom he’d given tea.
“I spoke with him one on one, quietly,” he recounted. “I said that he was welcome to stay for the rest of the service or that if he had just come in to get warm, he was welcome to leave. He didn’t have to feel that he was being rude. While I was talking with him, he pulled out a gun.”
For the next 11 hours, the man held hostage the Rabbi and the few congregants who had chosen to attend the service in person instead of via the Facebook stream the synagogue had set up when COVID hit.
Rabbi Charlie spoke with All Things Considered host Mary Louise Kelly. Below are highlights from their conversation.
The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
The moment Rabbi Charlie decided it was time to run
He had just finished yelling at the [FBI] negotiator that the call was ended. He was very agitated and then, all of the sudden, he became calm and asked me if we had any juice. So, I went into our kitchen. I found him a drink and a cup and I brought it over to him. As he got his drink, he was talking with us and lecturing to us about how he had been so compassionate. His gun wasn’t in a great position for him to access it, and he was holding liquid in his hand. So I picked up the chair that was right in front of me, I was the closest to him. I had been the closest to him all day. The other two people in the room with me were a little bit closer to the door. I made sure that they were ready to go, and I told them to run. I told them to go, I don’t remember the actual words. I picked up the chair and threw it at him and headed for the door. I didn’t even hear a shot fired. Fortunately, we were able to escape. Shortly thereafter, FBI and SWAT and all of the support that we had outside was able to come in and they were able to save us, to make sure we were safe.
What did they talk about for 11 hours?
We talked about a lot. He largely dictated the conversation. He wanted to talk about Dr. Aafia [Siddiqui]. He wanted to talk about his issues with Muslims, his issues with America, his issues with lots of different groups. We listened as best we could. We responded as best we could. We tried to keep him as calm as we could throughout the process, praising him for his compassion throughout the day about how well he treated us. We wanted him to see us as human beings. I do believe that we were somewhat successful and that helped him to release one of our members midway through.
Will he offer hot tea to a stranger again?
This was one individual. I have led thousands and thousands of services at the congregation over my 15-plus years with the community. This was the first time we had something along those lines. So when someone comes to the door? Yes, I’m going to do the same kind of visual scan that I did. And I’m going to assume that even if they do not look like the stereotypical person who’s going to come into a Jewish synagogue, I want them there. Whether they’re somebody who’s Jewish, who’s coming in from another community or from our community, or whether they’re not Jewish, and maybe they’re exploring Judaism for the first time, or they just want to see what a Jewish service is all about because they’re curious and they’re asking, am I going to belong? And I want them to know that they are going to belong. Hospitality means the world.
How will security at the synagogue change?
I don’t know. But I will tell you that we will do what we always do, which is the best we can, right? We are imperfect human beings. Whether we’re in a synagogue, a church or a mosque, whether we are religious or not … we are imperfect human beings trying to live the best we can. And we pray, I pray, that the preparations that we make and the choices that we make are going to be for the sake of heaven, that they are going to lead to a positive result. We can’t know the future, we can’t know what’s coming and we also can’t live in fear every step of the way.
What the Rabbi would say to the hostage and his family now
Give me a moment — a moment of compassion, while I try to respond. I’ve not been asked that before. I would say to his family I am so sorry. I am so sorry that you had to endure this tragedy. It’s horrible for all of us.