Local Shuls Call For Increase In Volunteer Security Detail
The ten grueling hours of uncertainty at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, this past Shabbos prompted synagogues and schools to ensure their readiness once again if the unthinkable were to occur.
As Motza’ei Shabbos set in and the alarming news began to spread, shuls far and near began to react with an outpouring of love. As G-d-fearing Jews, many turned to the psalms of T’hilim to be a guiding light for those held hostage. It gave all a moment to close their eyes and reflect on the words, “Acheinu kol beis Yisrael, ha’n’sunim ba’tzarah u’va’shivyah.”
In Kew Gardens Hills, Rabbi Moshe Rosenberg’s Congregation Etz Chaim was one of the shuls that held a virtual program hoping to bring safety to the Jews in distress. Rabbi Richard Weiss of the Young Israel of Hillcrest also held a late-night cyber-t’filah gathering.
As the story of the daring escape came to light, shul security watch groups put out a call for increased involvement by their memberships. “In the last hour of our hostage crisis, the gunman became increasingly belligerent and threatening,” said Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, the rabbi held hostage. Without the security training from Jewish community experts, the hostages in Texas would not have been prepared to act and flee when the situation presented itself.
Colleyville is a stark reminder of the ever-present threats facing the American Jewish community and the critical importance of training and security. “What’s frightening is that this siege of Congregation Beth Israel could have been anywhere. Nothing at all connected the attacker with the Jews worshiping there,” wrote Mark Gross to his friends at the Young Israel of Hillcrest. “Unfortunately, it takes a crisis to wake us up. I got involved with CSS [Community Security Service] at our shul only after the tragedy in Pittsburgh. Thanks to the training we do with CSS, I see how important it is to have visible security in front of the shul as a deterrent to make it less likely that we would be targeted, as well as knowledgeable CSS members inside to help keep us safe. It has been proven time and again that volunteer security is a critical component – and we need your help.”
At the Young Israel of Woodmere, the message was similar. “We continue to coordinate with our community partners and law enforcement. We have been speaking with NCPD. In the coming days, we will ascertain the facts and seek to identify lessons learned to strengthen our security operations. Now more than ever, we need you to join our CSS team at YIW. It has been proven time and again that a hardened facility and volunteer security will deter an attack from ever happening. It’s a small amount of time that will go a long way towards keeping our shul safe and protected.”
At the Young Israel of West Hempstead, the same message resonated. “It is a small amount of time that will go a long way towards keeping our shul safe and protected.” The message of not looking the other way is one that should not be ignored.
Over 1,200 Tune In to OU’s Colleyville Response
The Orthodox Union’s Advocacy Center jumped into action and arranged a special briefing Monday afternoon in conjunction with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which brought over 1,200 synagogue leaders eager to provide answers, protocols, and security resolutions to the congregational communities. FBI Director Christopher A. Wray was front and center leading the conversation. “The investigation will continue, to learn why and how this individual chose this synagogue,” he assured listeners.
Listeners heard firsthand from law enforcement an assessment of the current threat environment and received guidance on key steps that synagogues should be taking in the wake of the incident. Secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas followed with guidance on the upcoming application season for Nonprofit Security Grant Program funds, a service that brought millions of dollars to local synagogues and schools for security. “We must be focused on equipping and empowering local communities to respond appropriately.”
Director Wray urged, “You are our eyes and ears to know when something just is not right,” adding, “The training the congregation received was key in helping them escape.” Wray spoke of the heroism of the day and how the hostages remained calm throughout the ordeal. He encouraged each synagogue to meet their local FBI counterparts: “Though the day was long and harrowing, it was a success because of partnerships. The FBI will comprehensively and aggressively investigate further.” Wray explained that the investigation will discuss how the country has become prone to attacks that require little preparation and are generally not sophisticated.
Wray reiterated that attacks are thwarted when people reach out, and stressed that nothing is too small to report. Often people call in a stray backpack, but it can be a misplaced person that is a strong lead. “Let’s patch the roof when sun is shining to avoid crisis,” offered the director, as he encouraged synagogues to form relationships with local field offices. On another note, he expressed how law enforcement maintains continuous training, and synagogues should consider the same.
FBI Deputy Director Paul Abbate sat beside Wray and offered a timeline of the day. “At 12:20 p.m. on Saturday, the Colleyville Police Department got the emergency call via someone who saw the synagogue’s livestream.” In the end, there were four hostages, including Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who was praised for ultimately throwing a chair at the terrorist to deflect his attention, allowing the group to simultaneously run to safety. Prior, at 6:19 p.m., one hostage was released.
Abbate depicted the robust and quick response of law enforcement, including Texas’ Department of Public Safety. He explained that the police department made quick contact with the individual and kept him talking throughout the entire standoff. He also mentioned a conversation that was arranged between the terrorist and a New York City rabbi that he had no prior connection with. This led to an increased police presence throughout the city and around the country. Queens Borough Safety Patrol-Shmira was also seen on duty throughout Motza’ei Shabbos.
Abbate made note that the man acted alone and not on behalf of any formal terrorist group. Other reporting revealed that in mid-2020, Malik Faisal Akram was investigated by Britain’s intelligence group MI5, but determined not be a threat. Back in 1996, he beat an extended family member with a baseball bat and was jailed for the incident. Despite this, Akram flew from the United Kingdom to JFK on December 29 and took shelter at a Queens Boulevard hotel. Two days later, he flew to Texas, where he had previously lived at homeless shelters.
John D. Cohen, Coordinator for Counterterrorism and Senior Official Performing the Duties of the Under Secretary for Intelligence and Analysis at the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS), spoke of the continued threat to our environment. Robert Silvers (DHS Under Secretary for Strategy, Policy, and Plans) spoke of work that a community can do to protect itself and be secure in worship and community activities so our way life can continue as normal. Silvers pointed to the $180 million doled out in the security grant in 2021 and free training tools available at dhs.gov/faith. Using this website will assist with exercises, and a self-assessment to safely maintain a welcoming environment and have best security in your house of worship. Silver also touted The Center for Prevention Programs and Partnerships (CP3) and its support of communities across the United States where it prevents individuals from radicalizing to violence.
Melissa Rogers, Executive Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, re-assumed her position held in the Obama administration (the Trump era had done away with her office). Rogers noted that the president is a faith-based person and made special consideration to call the Saturday incident an act of terror. “The president made clear we won’t tolerate attacks on synagogues and other places of worship. Everyone must feel safe when attending a service or walking down the street with a symbol of faith.”
Baltimorean Chanan Y. Weissman, the White House’s liaison to the Jewish community, said, “I am an active member of my shul, I am a gabbai, and I lead from the amud. This Administration takes threats of anti-Semitism seriously.” To quell fears, Weissman iterated, “This upcoming Shabbat I plan to be in shul and plan to live my life fully knowing that this Administration is going to work with the community deep into the future, allowing us to daven, worship, and pray.”
Nathan Diament, Executive Director of the Orthodox Union Advocacy Center, pledged to keep the conversation open for local law enforcement and local houses of worship to connect and enjoy religious freedoms.
Local And National Organizations React
Gideon Taylor, Executive Vice President and CEO, JCRC-NY, stated, “No one should ever be afraid to assemble in their place of worship. We stand with our brothers and sisters in the Texas Jewish community. We also thank NYPD, FBI, and law enforcement throughout the state for monitoring the situation and ensuring that our synagogues and communal institutions are protected. We are grateful to our many partners in the interfaith community and elected officials – including Governor Hochul and Mayor Adams – who have conveyed their thoughts and prayers.”
Michael Nussbaum, President, and Mayer Waxman, Executive Director, of the Queens Jewish Community Council, noted, “The incident is a stark reminder that Jewish sites anywhere remain targets to people of ill intent, regardless of the sites’ proximity or relationship to any issue or cause. QJCC maintains security contacts available to assist Queens synagogues and Jewish sites.
The Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America Leadership pledged to fight for the safety of synagogues as a highest priority. “The OU Advocacy Center will continue our engagement with policymakers at the highest levels to deliver the resources our communities need to be safe and secure. In the near term, this includes pressing Congress to boost the funding level for the Nonprofit Security Grant Program, administered by the DHS, to $360 million in the appropriations package currently under discussion. The Orthodox Union will continue to work to ensure that members of our community – and of all faith communities – can exercise the freedom to worship with freedom from fear.”
To this end, Congress Member Grace Meng said, “I have always been and will always be outspoken in condemning the heinous anti-Semitic attacks, including in New York City, that took place following the violence.” Rep. Meng also led a bipartisan letter to President Biden urging him to respond to the rising anti-Semitism in the United States and around the world. The letter asked that the administration swiftly implement Rep. Meng’s COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, and to develop an inter-agency strategy to combat anti-Semitism and protect American Jews. This would include acting when these attacks take place in our community, most recently at Bagels and Company on Union Turnpike, and when a menorah was pushed over into the street in Hollis Hills.
All in all, it is each other that we must protect. We must continue to stand together and build strong relationships across all religious and cultural communities to be prepared for any occurrence. We must undertake to call out anti-Semitism, baseless conspiracy theories, and falsehoods that unfairly blame Jews for innumerous global woes, especially those shrouded in anti-Israel rhetoric, which threaten the safety of Jewish communities here in the US and around the world. It was Pittsburgh, Poway, Monsey, and now Colleyville. This terror must never become the “new normal” for our community.
CNN And BBC Worsen Hostage Situation for Jews
Viewers of the CNN cable news network this past Saturday night may not have thought that the Colleyville situation was all that bad, as the network opted to break off from its coverage to air a previously scheduled documentary. This action caught many off guard. CNN quickly turned back to the hostage crisis when a loud bang was heard from the synagogue. It was later revealed, a half hour afterwards, that this noise coincided with the successful rescue attempt and the death of the hostage taker.
The BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) self-confessed their error in putting “hostages” in quotes in their coverage of the Texas hostage siege. A tweet from their offices referred to the captives as “hostages.” This was long past five hours into the ordeal. “Texas police respond to ‘hostage’ situation,” read the tweet. A BBC spokesperson responded to an inquiry on their tweet: “This was a developing news story, which we edited and revised throughout the night. We initially used quote marks in the headline because the reports were unconfirmed, and we should have removed them earlier than we did, when we first updated the story with confirmation from officials that this was a hostage situation. This was an oversight in the editing process due to a busy news cycle. This story is currently the lead item on our news website.”