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One year after being held hostage, Rabbi Charlie is ‘grateful to be alive’

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Among the 16 tributes to God that many Jews recite each morning is one that ends in matir asurim — Hebrew for freeing the imprisoned. Some translate this as “releasing the bound” and recite it upon sitting up in bed, a simple gratitude for still being able to unfurl one’s legs.

 

For Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, this is the line that retains special resonance as we mark a year since he spent 11 hours held hostage by a deranged gunman in his Texas synagogue. “That’s one that has stayed with me a little bit more than others, just that idea of release, and being able to escape,” Cytron-Walker told me when we spoke Thursday afternoon.

 

“You have to understand, I thought I was going to die,” he explained. “And I’m grateful to be here. It’s not complicated, it’s pretty simple: I’m grateful to be alive, and I’m very focused and dedicated on trying to do what I can to live the values of our people.”

 

A lot has happened in the life of this 47-year-old Reform rabbi and father of two teenage girls since he invited a raggedy British stranger into his shul for a cup of tea on Shabbat morning, Jan. 15, 2022. He’s been to the White House three times, done countless media interviews, become an ADL adviser and moved to North Carolina to start a new job. Ahead of the anniversary, he’s written a prayer for peace and an OpEd about security — and come down with COVID.

 

“I’m marking the day by doing something life-affirming,” he said when I asked how he planned to spend Sunday, Jan. 15, 2023. “And there may be ice cream involved.”

All this week on the public radio station WNYC, Brian Lehrer has been asking listeners, by age group, to share the news events that defined their generation. Everybody of a certain age remembers exactly where they were when President Kennedy was assassinated. For us GenXers it’s the Challenger disaster, 9/11 and, now, Jan. 6. For American Jews, add the Tree of Life massacre and, perhaps, too, Colleyville.

 

I was in a multiplex watching “West Side Story” with my own teenagers that Saturday afternoon. The movie runs 2 hours and 36 minutes and when I snuck out to the bathroom I also snuck a peek at my phone.  My colleagues had just published the first bulletin about the attack and our #Slack was abuzz planning coverage. I managed to finish the film, texting some directions under a lap-tent I made from my jacket, then spent the next 10 hours at my desk in our basement, banging out the first profile of the man everybody was already calling Rabbi Charlie — and would soon be calling a hero. 

 

His friends and colleagues told me he was dedicated to interfaith bridge-building and all about listening. It turned out he had also been paying attention during a recent security training at the synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel. Rabbi Charlie famously kept his cool as the gunman made ridiculous demands relating to a fellow Islamist imprisoned on terror charges, and, eventually, threw a chair at his captor, engineering safe escape for him and his congregants.

 

I asked him, looking back now that a year has passed, which moments from the ordeal stand out. “It was after we had eaten dinner,” he began, “we had gotten the pizza.” 

 

“Getting the pizza, I mean, that was pretty traumatic,” Cytron-Walker continued. An FBI negotiator suggested the gunman let the hostages eat and “he had no objections,” the rabbi explained, so a cheese pizza was delivered to the building.

 

“You have all of these law-enforcement personnel outside the door, the pizza’s at the door, the gunman is literally yelling at me to not do anything, to not do anything fancy,” he recalled. “So just getting a pizza from the door was pretty stressful.”

 

After having a bite, the other hostages — Jeff Cohen, a Lockheed Martin engineer, and Shane Woodward, who works for PepsiCo and was in the midst of studying for conversion — asked the gunman for permission to walk around the sanctuary. (A fourth, 87-year-old Lawrence Schwartz, had been let go already.) 

 

“As we were walking around, Shane turns to me and says, ‘Rabbi, you know I’m still going to convert,” Cytron-Walker recalled. “And Jeff turns around and says, ‘What?!?’ And I just started laughing, because at that moment in time, there was no guarantee of our safety, there was no guarantee that we were getting out of there. To me, in the midst of that terrible day, that was just that one real bright spot that was just so affirming.”

 

The story reminded me of a conversation about conversion I’d had years ago with another rabbi. Traditionally, we Jews are supposed to discourage conversion. Rabbis are meant to turn seekers away three times before even beginning the process. Then, after a year or more of study, a ritual bath and, for men, a circumcision rite, converts are asked to pledge to uphold all 613 commandments — and whether they truly want to “throw their lot in with the Jewish people.”

 

This rabbi-friend found that last bit the most challenging and confounding. Who would choose to join a people that has been vilified and hunted for centuries? That has been the object of genocide and ghettoization, of oppression, of stereotyping and ridicule? Who signs up to be subjected to what is often called “the oldest hatred?”

 

Or, to bring us back to Colleyville and Shane Woodward: Who would volunteer to pray in a building likely to be targeted for attack?

 

“That was a real kiddush hashem, a real sanctification of God’s name,” Cytron-Walker said of that moment a year ago. “I really do believe that, based on everything I’ve been told, that a large portion of the Jewish people was really with us in the synagogue that day. That idea of Kol Yisrael arayvim zeh bazeh, that all Israel is responsible for one another — I certainly felt that in a different way on that day.”

“It’s not complicated, it’s pretty simple: I’m grateful to be alive, and I’m very focused and dedicated trying to do what I can to live the values of our people.”

– Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker

The Secure Community Network, which provides trainings and other safety support for Jewish organizations across the country, says it has counted 84 bomb threats against synagogues in the year since Colleyville. That’s more than one every four days. The American Jewish Committee, meanwhile, reports that 54% of U.S. Jews feel less safe now than before the incident.

 

And the ADL just published a new study showing that more than half of Americans still buy into  antisemitic tropes about Jews and power and money and sticking together, a portion that is growing, not shrinking.

 

Rabbi Charlie, for his part, mostly wants to talk about security and preparedness. His new congregation, Temple Emanuel in Winston-Salem, recently hosted two training sessions to which it invited members of a local interfaith network. When he arrived six months ago, they had a security guard on duty for Friday night services but not for the smaller Saturday morning Torah study — now they have both.

 

“If we could go back, we would have had a security officer at the door, and it wouldn’t have even been an issue,” he said. “The idea that even if a small number of people are gathering, security might be necessary. That having someone out front, even on a cold day, whether they’re security personnel or whether they’re a greeter, that can be a really big deterrent.

 

“I’ve been asked a lot: Would you do it again, would you open the door again,” he added. “We do still have to live our values. And loving the stranger and caring for the stranger is mentioned so many more times in the Torah than any other commandment because it’s one of the hardest. Even now, with rising antisemitism, we have to find a way to do it.

 

“But we do have to strike that balance. To be open and welcoming and to maintain a sense of preparation. Not because we expect something bad to happen, but just in case.”

 

During our conversation, Cytron-Walker mentioned that his father died, of cancer, when he was only 5 years old And that his rabbinical school class was sent home early from their year in Jerusalem because of the Palestinian suicide bombing at the Moment Cafe, which killed 11 Israelis and wounded 54 others during the height of the second intifada. 

 

“So the idea that something horrible could happen or that life could be taken away was something that I was familiar with,” he said. “Again, I’m just grateful to be here.”

 

And, yes, grateful to be able to mark the anniversary with some ice cream. 

Thanks to Matthew Litman for contributing to this newsletter and Adam Langer for editing it.  

 

Shabbat Shalom! Questions/feedback: rudoren@forward.com

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