Cincinnati Jewish community leaders discuss hostage situation at Texas synagogue, as suspect identified

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Colleyville police secure the area around Congregation Beth Israel synagogue on Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022 in Colleyville, Texas.   Authorities say a man has apparently taken hostages at the synagogue near Fort Worth, Texas. The Colleyville Police Department tweeted Saturday afternoon that it was conducting SWAT operations at the address of Congregation Beth Israel
Colleyville police secure the area around Congregation Beth Israel synagogue on Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022 in Colleyville, Texas. Authorities say a man has apparently taken hostages at the synagogue near Fort Worth, Texas. The Colleyville Police Department tweeted Saturday afternoon that it was conducting SWAT operations at the address of Congregation Beth Israel

During a Shabbat service Saturday morning, a man took four people hostage inside the Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas.

The FBI on Sunday identified British national Malik Faisal Akram, 44, as the person who took hostages in a standoff at a Texas synagogue, apparently acting alone.

More: FBI IDs assailant in Texas hostage standoff as British national; rabbi 'grateful to be alive'

He allegedly held the hostages until Saturday night when all four were confirmed to be safe a little after 10:30 p.m. Law enforcement also confirmed that the suspect is dead.

Dallas FBI chief Matthew DeSarno said the investigation involved Britain and Israel, and the assailant was focused on an issue not directly connected to the Jewish community. London’s Metropolitan Police said Akram was from the Lancashire area of northwest England and British counterterrorism police worked with U.S. authorities on the case.

The situation was followed closely across the country. Several online vigils were held throughout the day to bring people together in prayer.

Naomi Ruben, a spokesperson for the American Jewish Committee, said that the AJC stayed in constant contact with colleagues at the Dallas office. Colleyville is located about 25 miles northwest of Dallas.

Ruben said that situations like Saturday can happen at any time, emphasizing that security measures at Jewish institutions are paramount to have established.

“I think a lot of people don’t understand in terms of the security issues that the Jewish community has to have in place,” Ruben said.

Hostage Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker

Among the hostages Saturday was Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who has led Congregation Beth Israel since he was ordained in 2006. Originally from Lansing, Michigan, Cytron-Walker graduated from the University of Michigan in 1998 and studied at the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati from 2002 to 2006.

Dr. Gary Zola, one of Cytron-Walker’s former professors at the HUC-JIR Cincinnati, told the Enquirer he remembers having Rabbi Cytron-Walker quite well as a student.

“When you meet him, he has a wonderful smile, he’s warm,” Zola said. “He’s compassionate and caring and has a wonderful sense of humor.”

Zola is the executive director of the Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives and teaches history at HUC-JIR. While Cytron-Walker was studying in Cincinnati, Zola said he had him in two of his courses. Zola also added that Cytron-Walker served as an intern at Temple Sholom in Blue Ash during his time as a student.

Zola said that a lot of graduates who leave the HUC-JIR rabbinical program find work as assistant rabbis at larger congregations. However, Zola said that Cytron-Walker seemed to be attracted to the smaller, intimate synagogue in Colleyville where he could help build the community. According to the synagogue's website, Cytron-Walker is Congregation Beth Israel’s first full-time rabbi.

“This was appealing to him, being close to people,” Zola added.

On Sunday, Cytron-Walker posted on his Facebook page saying he was thankful for the love and support over the past 24 hours.

“It’s just beautiful,” Zola said regarding the post. “It’s so Charlie.”

The 'bigger story'

Zola said that truly the “bigger story” behind the hostage situation Saturday is that it is an example of a pattern of antisemitic events that Jewish Americans have experienced over the past few years.

“This is the first time in all of American Jewish history that Jews have been held hostage in their own synagogue,” Zola told the Enquirer. “You know, there’s a series of things that have happened over the last five years in terms of Jewish life in America that have never happened before.”

According to the Department of Justice, in 2019, the last year that data regarding hate crimes is available online, 953 antisemitic incidents were reported. This was a 14% increase between the years 2018 and 2019. The DOJ also found that antisemitic incidents was the largest category of hate crimes related to religion, with anti-Muslim incidents second in the same year.

More recently, the AJC has conducted a State of Antisemitism in America survey, in which both American Jews and the general American public are surveyed on their experiences and perceptions on antisemitism. AJC conducted their first survey in 2019 on the first anniversary of the shooting in Pittsburgh that killed 11 worshipers during a service at the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue.

In 2021, AJC’s survey found that 24% of 1,433 Jews 18 years old or older indicated they had been a target of antisemitic incidents in the past 12 months, including physical attacks, remarks in person or comments online.

“I personally think that to those of us who have a vision of America that inspires to live up to the lofty words enshrined in its founding documents, this kind of thing ought to be very troubling,” Zola said.

Addressing antisemitism at the local level

AJC Cincinnati has been established for over 75 years, said Ruben, and brings the mission of the global organization to the local community. According to their website, AJC is the leading global Jewish advocacy organization, and works closely with elected officials, religious leaders and other decision makers to impact policy on the most important issues facing the Jewish people.

Ruben said that within Cincinnati, the AJC has formed partnerships with organizations such as the FBI and other law enforcement, as well as created dialogue spaces for interfaith conversations.

“All of our communities here in Cincinnati, we all support each other," Ruben said.

One of the ways the AJC works to stand against antisemitism is through education and awareness, Ruben said. The organization has several resources online, such as a working definition of the term and a “Translate Hate” glossary that empowers individuals to identify acts of antisemitism.

The AJC has also established the Mayors United Against Antisemitism, an initiative between AJC and the U.S. Conference of Mayors that calls on mayors to declare that antisemitism goes against democratic values.

More than 700 U.S. mayors have signed the statement, including former Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley and former Dayton Mayor Nan Whaley. Ruben said that the AJC plans to present the initiative to now-mayor Aftab Pureval at the end of the month to encourage him to sign.

Ruben added that the Mayors United initiative is a part of AJC’s mission because it helps bring education and awareness “at the local level. That’s the important thing.”

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: Cincinnati Jewish leaders discuss impact of Texas hostage situation

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