Meet the Colleyville, Texas Rabbi Held Hostage – The Forward

The fact that Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker was held hostage for 10 hours Saturday by a man linked to the 9/11 terrorist attacks

Several times a year, Cytron-Walker received the imam and members of a nearby mosque at his synagogue in Colleyville, Texas. He was the architect of many interfaith dialogues in the community of 26,000 a few miles from Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. Members of his community, Beth Israel, celebrated with Muslim neighbors during the Ramadan Iftar dinner.

“It was the first time I met an imam,” Tia Sukenik, the former director of the community’s religious school, recalled when the two communities first met. A few dozen people gathered around four or five round tables in the social room over snacks. “It opened the door for me to take my religious students to visit,” she added. “He’s always worked to expand our world and let other people see what Jews are like.”

Meet the Texas Rabbi who was held hostage for 11 hours

Rabbi Charlie, as friends and parishioners call him, was leading the Saturday morning Shabbat service as usual when a stranger interrupted around the time of prayers for the sick, according to footage from the services’ live stream posted on Facebook. The man said he hopes to help free Aafia Siddiqui, who is related by marriage to the chief architect of 9/11 and herself is serving an 86-year sentence for attempted terrorism.

At approximately 9:30 PM CT, Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas tweeted that all hostages had been safely released. The man who held the rabbi and several others captive for about 11 hours was killed in the standoff, the Colleyville Police Chief said at a news conference.

Cytron-Walker came to Beth Israel in 2006, shortly after his ordination from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He was the first full-time rabbi of the small Reform community, and it was his first pulpit. In the 15 years since it was founded, it has almost doubled in size to around 140 families.

Those who knew him growing up in Lansing, Michigan; in the rabbinical schools in Jerusalem and Cincinnati, Ohio; and described Cytron-Walker in Colleyville as a welcoming presence and bridge builder with a deep commitment to social justice. He’s the guy who turned in his thesis 15 minutes early and needed help writing thank-you notes for host churches where he spent weekends as a student rabbi. A guy who took a hyphenated surname upon marriage and always wears a kippah.

“His whole personality is listening and dialogue,” said Rabbi Michelle Werner of Rochester, Minnesota, his HUC classmate. “If you had a meeting with Charlie, there was a six-hour process part about how everyone could be heard, how we could be kind to one another — and that involved ordering a pizza.”

Meet the Texas Rabbi who was held hostage for 11 hours

Werner and Cytron-Walker were freshman rabbis in Jerusalem in 2001, and she recalled her cohort sitting in the HUC cafeteria watching video of planes hitting the World Trade Center. “Now we’re all thinking, why are we doing this again and why is Charlie in the middle of this?” she said in a phone interview Saturday night before the hostages were released.

Her year in Jerusalem was during the second Intifada, and it was Cytron-Walker’s apartment where the friends gathered when the bomb sirens went off. “People felt safe there, surrounded and cared for,” explains Werner. “It wasn’t a question: You knocked on the door and then the door opened.”

Cytron-Walker’s wife Adena works for a group called the Multicultural Alliance. The couple have two daughters, the younger of whom became a bat mitzvah during the pandemic.

He is a 1998 graduate of the University of Michigan, where, according to the synagogue’s website, he once spent 48 hours on the streets trying to understand homelessness and another time participated in a 24-hour dance marathon. Before starting rabbinical training, he worked at Focus-HOPE, a Detroit-based civil and human rights organization, and in a soup kitchen and pantry in Amherst, Massachusetts.

Gary P. Zola, history professor at HUC’s Cincinnati campus, recalled Cytron-Walker as the student who got along across cliques because “he has a warm smile and speaks in a soft, compassionate way.”

“There’s a lot of diversity in personalities in the rabbinical school and strong feelings — Charlie was someone who could bond with everyone,” Zola said. “He’s blessed with the ability to connect with people and be loved.”

Although most HUC graduates begin their careers as assistants in large congregations, Cytron-Walker was drawn to the idea of ​​starting a smaller congregation in a place without many Jews. So did his friend Rabbi Werner, who is about 20 years older than most of her classmates and applied for the same position in Colleyville.

Werner said Beth Israel told her that he felt Cytron-Walker’s relative youth was a better fit for his young community — “and Charlie wanted to sue her for ageism on my behalf.”

Rabbi Ben Sternman of Adat Chaverim, a Reform congregation in Plano, a Dallas suburb, has lunch most Wednesdays — depending on the COVID level — with Cytron-Walker and two other rabbis of small synagogues in the area. They go to the Oldwest Cafe in Bedford or the Parma Pasta and Pizza in Lewisville and exchange ideas — on pandemic planning, personal finance, tikkun olam and, yes, synagogue safety.

“When we’re faced with problems that we’re not sure how to handle, we exchange ideas,” Sternman said. “Charlie is an organizer. He genuinely wants to make this world a better place. He’s always out there trying to get us all involved in a project. When he’s organized interfaith, he’s told us what he’s doing and it’s an inspiration for us to get involved in the same way.”

Sternman said that Cytron-Walker, like himself, had undergone active rifleman training provided by the Dallas-Area Federation, which had also conducted safety audits for their communities.

“After Pittsburgh, we talked about security, about what small communities with no deep pockets can do to maintain security,” he said, referring to the killing of 11 worshipers during Shabbat services in 2018. “Every time I When I went to the Beth Israel Congregation, the door was locked, so I don’t know what happened today.”

Meet the Texas Rabbi who was held hostage for 11 hours

Lauren Markoe and Benyamin Cohen contributed coverage.

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