The armed man who held four people hostage inside Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, on Saturday was first welcomed as a “guest” into the synagogue by the rabbi, who offered him tea on what was a cold day in North Texas.
It once again raised the question of how rabbis can be welcoming religious leaders as threats against synagogues have loomed since the 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh. After a more than 11-hour standoff, three of the hostages inside the synagogue managed to escape (the fourth was released earlier), in large part because the congregation had participated in an active shooter training, according to accounts from the rabbi and another man who was held hostage.
“First of all, we escaped,” one of the four hostages, Jeffrey Cohen, wrote in a Facebook post on Monday morning. “We weren't released or freed. We escaped because we had training from the Secure Community Network on what to do in the event of an active shooter. This training saved our lives -- I am not speaking in hyperbole here -- it saved our lives.”
The Secure Community Network, a nonprofit organization that provided Congregation Beth Israel with its safety training last August, has seen a demand for these training sessions. The organization has trained more than 17,000 people in the North American Jewish community in the past year, Michael Masters, the CEO and national director of Secure Community Network, told BuzzFeed News on Tuesday. The congregation had also received training from the Anti-Defamation League and the Colleyville Police Department.
“This isn’t the world that we chose, it’s the world that we have and it’s the reality of that world that we need to train for events like we saw on Saturday,” Masters said.
Congregation Beth Israel Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker told CBS News on Monday that he was at the synagogue before Shabbat services when a man knocked on the synagogue’s window. The rabbi said he let the man in and made him tea, thinking he needed shelter on what was a cold day for North Texas.
“Making tea was an opportunity for me to talk with him and in that moment, I didn’t hear anything suspicious,” Cytron-Walker said.
In his Facebook posts, Cohen said that when he arrived at the synagogue for Saturday morning prayer, the rabbi introduced him to a “guest” who appeared “calm and happy.”
“His eyes weren't darting around; his hands were open and calm, he said hello, he smiled,” Cohen said of the stranger.
But when the service commenced, the rabbi turned his back during prayer and said he heard a “click” — the sound turned out to be the man’s gun. The armed stranger then ranted and yelled commands at the hostages, who feared for their lives in their place of worship.
“As a part of training of clergy, we talk a lot about being a calm non-anxious presence,” Cytron-Walker told CBS. “[The trainings] really teach you in those moments that when your life is threatened you need to do whatever you can to get to safety.”
Having active-shooter training and other preparedness measures are increasingly significant for the Jewish community, but their presence is a challenge to the very tenants of the faith, which promotes welcoming a guest.
The reminder to welcome strangers is repeated 36 times, more than any other commandment in the Torah, the Jewish book of faith, Masters said.
But the role of rabbis to receive guests is challenged by the necessity of keeping a congregation safe, as antisemitic acts of assault, vandalism, and harassment have increased by 12% over the previous year, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
“We do not want our facilities to look like armed fortresses,” Masters said, adding that balancing open-door principles with safety measures is “essential.”
There’s no “one size fits all” solution, he said, and the right strategy for every congregation must involve working with rabbis to develop comprehensive strategies that go beyond just an armed guard or a security camera.
“I’m alive today because I took that training,” Rabbi Hazzan Jeffrey Myers, a survivor of the mass shooting that killed 11 people at the Tree of Life Congregation in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh in 2018, told BuzzFeed News on Tuesday.
Prior to the massacre, Myers took multiple training sessions in the months offered by the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, which taught him specific safety tactics, such as bringing his phone with him into service. Because of this lesson, Myers was able to make the first 911 call on Oct. 27, 2018, when an armed assailant entered the synagogue with an AR-15-style assault rifle and multiple handguns.
“That’s an indictment of America that the Jewish community in the United States has to take these steps,” Myers said, adding that it’s not only the Jewish community gripped by the threat of violence. He said he fears for every house of worship, where attacks are on the rise.
It is “foolish” for other religious houses not to engage in active shooter training, Myers said.
“There is no choice,” he said, adding that it's essential to “internalize” the training.
The “big question,” Myers said, was how does one remember the lesson to be empathetic to a stranger when that stranger “is armed and ready to kill you?”
“That leads to a bigger question of what is going on in America that our houses of worship are under attack and our concept of sanctuary … has now been compromised," he said.
In his Facebook post recounting the escape from the attacker, Cohen said the situation in the synagogue did not play out “like the movies.” The armed man threatened the congregation in an 11-hour long standoff that started around 11 a.m.
The Dallas FBI identified the gunman as a 44-year-old British man named Malik Faisal Akram, who is believed to have acted alone.
One of the four hostages was released around 5 p.m., but as the standoff dragged on, Akram began growing more agitated, yelling that he was going to kill the remaining hostages, Cohen said.
Small decisions made for a big difference for the hostages, according to Cohen’s account. He said he always keeps his phone next to him during services, so he was able to quickly call 911 when the gunman began yelling and put the phone screen side down as he moved when commanded.
“Instead of going to the back of the room, I stayed in line with one of the exits,” Cohen said in his Facebook post, adding that he remained calm during the standoff and never raised his voice or made sudden moves.
Cohen said the hostages talked to the gunman and asked him questions to keep him “engaged,” buying the FBI time.
Cohen then recalled how he helped a fellow hostage move closer to the exit by whispering to him about the exit door while rubbing his shoulders. When a pizza was delivered to the hostages, Cohen suggested that the third hostage bring it back to them, eventually positioning all three hostages within 20 feet of the exit.
“This proved critical for our escape,” Cohen said.
At one point the gunman let the hostages call their families, so Cohen spoke with his wife, daughter, and son, and posted on Facebook.
“To be perfectly honest, at that point, I figured we had few options and little chance of survival,” Cohen wrote. “With my feet, I slowly moved a few chairs in front of me. Anything to slow or divert a bullet or shrapnel.”
He said the situation began to worsen when the gunman ordered the hostages to get on their knees.
“The last hour or so of the standoff, he wasn’t getting what he wanted … It didn’t look good,” Cytron-Walker told CBS.
The rabbi said he waited until the right moment before hauling a chair at the gunman and yelling for the hostages to run. The three hostages escaped out a side door without any shots being fired at them.
They were escorted to safety when FBI agents entered the synagogue around 9 p.m. on Saturday. The gunman died in a “shooting incident,” although it was not immediately clear whether agents or the suspect himself fired the shot that killed him.
“It was terrifying,” Cytron-Walker said. “We’re still processing.”
Akram, who flew to the US from London on Dec. 29, allegedly demanded the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a neuroscientist who was convicted of attempting to kill US soldiers and FBI agents and is currently serving an 86-year sentence at a federal prison near Fort Worth, Texas. The Greater Manchester Police in the UK said two teenagers were in custody for questioning in connection with the incident, but they were released on Tuesday without being charged.
“We do believe from our engagement with this subject that he was singularly focused on one issue, and it was not specifically related to the Jewish community, but we will continue to work to find motive,” FBI Dallas Special Agent in Charge Matthew DeSarno said in a press conference Saturday.
The Secure Community Network is conducting an analysis on the Colleyville attack for potential takeaways, and the group updated its guidance as of Tuesday morning for its new BeAware training. Masters said the team modified the training Tuesday morning with principles on identifying suspicious behavior, specifically a reminder that appearances can be deceiving — after Cohen recalled that the gunman appeared “happy” and “calm” in the synagogue, despite his intentions.
“This is not security theater,” Masters said, adding that keeping faith-based organizations safe isn’t a part-time effort.
Masters encouraged Jewish communities across the nation to “commit to action,” get trained, and have a facility assessment done to determine security weakpoints.
“You do what you have to do,” Cytron-Walker said, adding that it was “important” the congregation goes back to the facility at some point. “I did the best I could to do that throughout the standoff.”