What we all can learn from the hostage crisis at a Texas synagogue

·5 min read
Law enforcement officials block a residential street near Congregation Beth Israel synagogue where a man took hostages during services on Jan. 15, 2022, in Colleyville, Texas.
Law enforcement officials block a residential street near Congregation Beth Israel synagogue where a man took hostages during services on Jan. 15, 2022, in Colleyville, Texas.

He lift up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground … Let a little water, I pray you, be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree. And I will fetch a morsel of bread, and comfort ye your hearts; and after that ye shall pass on: for therefore are ye come to your servant. And they said, So do, as thou hast said.

— Genesis 18: 2-5

He invited him in and made him a cup of tea.

Of all the remarkable elements of last week’s hostage crisis in a Texas synagogue — the live broadcast of the incident during an online Sabbath service, the 11 hours of negotiations, the cool reserve of those imprisoned in what is ironically called a “sanctuary,” the rush to the door for an escape provided by the mayhem following the hurling of a chair—this is the most astonishing:

The hostage crisis began when Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker invited the gunman into Congregation Beth Israel of Colleyville in the Fort Worth suburbs.

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker makes a statement to the media after the service at White's Chapel United Methodist Church in Southlake,  Texas,  on Jan. 17. The church held a healing service for congregants and members of the community after a hostage standoff at Congregation Beth Israel on Saturday.
Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker makes a statement to the media after the service at White's Chapel United Methodist Church in Southlake, Texas, on Jan. 17. The church held a healing service for congregants and members of the community after a hostage standoff at Congregation Beth Israel on Saturday.

He thought Malik Faisal Akram wanted shelter and could do with a cup of hot tea.

A quarter-century ago, another rabbi faced a similar situation. Rabbi Ken Kanter of Mizpah Congregation in Chattanooga let a teenager into his synagogue; Joseph Harper had been in the day before, seeking some water, so he was a familiar figure, clearly in search of succor. The visitor handcuffed the rabbi, blindfolded him, stole his wallet and keys, put him in the trunk of his 1987 Volvo, drove around for an hour and finally released him.

“People come to the door all the time, asking for food or water or money,” said Rabbi Kanter.

But this is what will stun you: It turns out that Rabbi Kanter, who was director of the rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, taught Rabbi Cytron-Walker in his senior seminar on practical rabbinics.

What is more important than the most improbable of all coincidences is that both rabbis— the one held hostage in his own sanctuary, the one kidnapped and thrust into his own automobile trunk — acted out of the kindness that is central not just to Judaism but to all religions.

“It relates to a sense of the clergy of all faiths, trying to serve the community, whether because of poverty or hunger,” Rabbi Kanter told me.

It is clear that Rabbi Cytron-Walker — a controversial figure in his own congregation, where a search committee for his replacement was scheduled for two days before the hostage situation unfolded — was a good student, to his detriment for that harrowing Sabbath but perhaps providing some teaching for us all.

Not that you should let a gunman into your house, or house of worship. Instead, it’s that open doors, to the stranger and — here’s the lesson for our politicians, and for us — to those whose backgrounds, appearance, outlooks, views differ from ours, can be dangerous. But also that open doors are essential for us to retain, and enhance, our humanity.

And so Rabbi Kanter was not at all surprised to discover history repeating itself with the young man he once sat across in a seminar room in the Cincinnati seminary.

“That was completely characteristic of him,” said Rabbi Kanter, who, Zelig-like, also was an officiant at my daughter’s wedding.. “That is the kind of career he had as a student and it has been his personal style, of warmth and friendship, as a practicing rabbi. He is a sweet, kind, caring guy. The fact that his first thought would be to welcome him and give him a cup of tea is very Charlie.”

Nor was a longtime associate of the Texas rabbi stunned when he learned what his friend had done.

“It is not surprising in the slightest that Charlie invited him in,” said Rabbi Daniel Fellman of Pittsburgh’s Temple Sinai, who has known Rabbi Cytron-Walker for many years and whose wife was in Jewish youth group with him in Lansing, Mich. “That’s who Charlie is — and it’s who we all want to be as rabbis. The sad reality of living in America in 2022 is that those kind gestures can now lead to difficulties.

“Just because a terrible thing happened to Charlie isn’t going to stop me from doing the very same thing,” he continued. “It is who we are as humans at our best.”

It’s hard to see humans at our best in the wake of seeing humans at their worst. And yet the two rabbis are not the only members of the clergy who, to tra3gic results, have invited in the stranger.

Our calling,” the Rev. Clemente Pinckney of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., once said, “is not just within the walls of the congregation, but…the life and community in which our congregation resides.”

And so his broad view of “community” led to the presence of Dylann Roof in a Bible study session in June 2015, only to watch the visitor draw a gun and proclaim that Blacks were "taking over the country." Then he shot and killed nine people.

“Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer could not see the grace surrounding Rev. Pinckney and that Bible study group -- the light of love that shone as they opened the church doors and invited a stranger to join in their prayer circle,” President Barack Obama said at Rev. Pinckney’s funeral. Then he sang, a capella, “Amazing Grace.” He might have continued to the second stanza, which opens this way:

'Twas grace that taught my heart to fear

And grace my fears relieved

Congregation Beth Israel Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, facing camera, hugs a man after a healing service Monday night, Jan. 17,  at White’s Chapel United Methodist Church in Southlake, Texas. Cytron-Walker was one of four people held hostage by a gunman at his Colleyville, Texas, synagogue.
Congregation Beth Israel Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, facing camera, hugs a man after a healing service Monday night, Jan. 17, at White’s Chapel United Methodist Church in Southlake, Texas. Cytron-Walker was one of four people held hostage by a gunman at his Colleyville, Texas, synagogue.

Shortly after his escape from his own sanctuary, Rabbi Cytron-Walker noted that a synagogue is called a bit knesset, a house of gathering. In his faith, and surely in yours, the welcome mat is at the door.

“Inviting in — welcoming — the stranger is an essential part of Christianity,” said Bishop David Zubic of Pittsburgh. “What happened in Texas is an example of what’s plaguing our society today and descriptive of how kindness, care and concern are often met with hatred, anger and prejudice.”

The Beth Israel episode had a happy resolution, ending with the hope that doors throughout the land, and in politics, are thrown open. The reason: to borrow the title of a 1953 play by Robert Anderson, for tea and sympathy.

David M. Shribman is former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Email dshribman@post-gazette.com. Twitter: @ShribmanPG

This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: Takeaway lessons from the hostage crisis at a Texas synagogue

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