Rabbi in Texas hostage crisis has Valley connections

  • Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, facing camera, hugs a man after a healing service Monday night at White’s Chapel United Methodist Church in Southlake, Texas. STAR-TELEGRA/ VIA AP


Staff Writer
Monday, January 24, 2022

AMHERST — At a Tu BiShvat in Florence that joined Beit Ahavah Reform Synagogue and the Jewish Community of Amherst on Sunday afternoon, 150 people gathered outside to mark the new year of trees, discuss environmental causes and promote climate action justice.

The event became more joyful than is customary when participants learned that Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and three congregants at his Colleyville, Texas, synagogue had safely escaped from captivity after being taken hostage by a gunman the previous day.

“It was so celebratory because of the outcome, so profound that everyone was talking about Charlie and his work,” says Riqi Kosovske, who leads Beit Ahavah.

For Kosovske, though, Cytron-Walker is not just a fellow rabbi; he was a rabbinical classmate of hers in 2001. And at the Amherst Survival Center, Cytron-Walker was the assistant director for two years before leaving for Jerusalem to attend Hebrew Union College, with classes held during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the second intifada, or Palestinian uprising against Israel.

Since then, Kosovske has stayed in touch with Cytron-Walker, who helps lead the Reform Rabbis Small Congregations network. That group is a subset of the 800 to 900 reform congregations across the United States and serves to amplify and expand support for the work Kosovske and others do in the small congregations.

“Never would I have imagined the strength of that intimacy of small congregations would be highlighted in this horrible way, and yet the world is seeing the strength and love of community that Charlie built there that is holding them all in this moment,” Kosovske said.

The Survival Center posted on its Facebook about how the hostage-taking incident hit close to home: “He is known by our community as a deeply kind person, always willing to listen and to help.”

“He was just a fabulous, lovely and skillful presence at the Survival Center,” said Marcie Sclove, who worked alongside Cytron-Walker at the center.

Sclove recalled Cytron-Walker’s presence and calmness, and said he was good at making room for people of different backgrounds. “Some of the qualities he has informed his ability to work with the hostage situation,” Sclove said.

‘A rabbi’s rabbi’

On the website for Congretation Beth Israel in Texas, where he has been serving since 2006, Cytron-Walker’s stint in Amherst is mentioned. At the time, his wife, Adena, was enrolled at the University of Massachusetts.

Idit Klein, CEO of Keshet, a national Jewish LGBTQ organization based in Boston, in a statement issued by the organization, reflected on joining Adena Cytron-Walker in studying social justice education, and on how Charlie Cytron-Walker became an honorary member of this group and demonstrated the “same commitment to multi-faith, multi-racial, multi-ethnic engagement.”

Kosovske said she appreciates that the couple became strong advocates on both LGBTQ and feminist issues.

When she learned of the incident in Texas, Kosovske said, she reactivated a Facebook messenger group with other classmates and spent Saturday in communication with those who had previously bonded over traumatic experiences, such as attacks on cafes during the intifada.

She calls Cytron-Walker extraordinary. “He is one of the kindest humans,” Kosovske said. “He’s kind of a rabbi’s rabbi, a model.”

This came through during the “Service for Healing and Resilience” held after the standoff ended, she said.

Offering shelter

Cytron-Walker told CBS that he had let the man, later identified as Malik Faisal Akram, into Congregation Beth Israel because he appeared to need shelter. The rabbi said the man wasn’t threatening or suspicious at first, but later he heard a gun click as he was praying.

During the standoff, Akram, a 44-year-old British citizen, could be heard on a Facebook livestream demanding the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist who is suspected of having ties to al-Qaida and was convicted of trying to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The prison where Siddiqui is serving her sentence is in nearby Fort Worth.

One hostage was released hours later, and the rabbi and two others later escaped after Cytron-Walker threw a chair at the gunman. After the hostages had escaped, an FBI SWAT team rushed into the synagogue and Akram was killed.

Kosovske said even with the positive outcome, the incident is an indication of the prevalence of antisemitism, which has hit home locally, for example when services have been interrupted on Zoom or antisemitic imagery and language were used at a recent Board of Health meeting in Northampton.

She is dismayed that there has been muted reaction locally, unlike what happened following the slayings at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh 2018.

But she takes solace in the beauty of interfaith imagery at the service broadcast live from Texas. “They were all together there for pastoral care,” Kosovske said. Kosovske is also pleased that at the Tu BiShvat Rachel’s Table, a program of the Jewish Federation of Western Massachusetts, participated, showing the importance of food that Cytron-Walker would appreciate.

“It was an opportunity to talk about caring for the poor, and to honor Charlie with donations in his name,” Kosovske said.