A view of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, on Jan. 17, 2022. (Photo/JTA-Emil Lippe-Getty Images)
A view of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, on Jan. 17, 2022. (Photo/JTA-Emil Lippe-Getty Images)

Bay Area Jews seek additional security after Texas hostage crisis

Bay Area synagogues and Jewish organizations are tightening security in the wake of an armed gunman taking hostages Jan. 15 at a synagogue in Texas.

Rafael Brinner, director of community security for the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation, said “several new requests have come in” from local Jewish organizations seeking security assistance, including the kind of active shooter training that was instrumental in the Texas hostages’ dramatic escape.

Trainings like “Run, Hide, Fight,” a module that guides people on what to do in the event of an active shooter, are part of the reason “we have a good news story to tell after the weekend, and not a tragic one,” Brinner said.

The 11-hour hostage situation began during Shabbat morning services at Congregation Beth Israel, a Reform synagogue in Colleyville, a suburb about 15 miles north of Fort Worth. The synagogue had been livestreaming its services on Facebook and the suspect’s actions were partially recorded on the stream.

The armed assailant, Malik Faisal Akram, a 44-year-old British citizen, took Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and three congregants hostage after the rabbi answered a knock at the shul’s door, where he saw the man standing in the cold (the rabbi even made him some tea). Shortly after, Akram pulled out a gun and demanded the release of Aafia Siddiqui, who is serving an 86-year sentence in the Fort Worth area for attempting to kill American military personnel after she was arrested in Afghanistan in 2008 on suspicion of plotting attacks in New York.

Throughout the standoff, the Secure Community Network — a North American Jewish security organization supported by Jewish federations — kept in touch with communities around the country, including in the Bay Area. An S.F. Federation statement on Jan. 15 confirmed it had been in contact with SCN, which was reporting that “the situation appear[ed] to be local and isolated” and there did not seem to be “direct, credible threats to any other institutions.”

Still, San Francisco police reportedly planned to be more visible and increase patrols around Jewish institutions in the city as a precaution in the aftermath of the crisis.

According to Cytron-Walker, training on how to deal with an armed assailant inside the building — part of a series of training workshops that proliferated in synagogues across the country after attacks in Pittsburgh and Poway — saved his life and the lives of his congregants.

“We are alive today because of that education. I encourage all Jewish congregations, religious groups, schools, and others to participate in active-shooter and security courses,” the rabbi said in a statement the day after the crisis.

OPINION: Don’t let the Texas hostage crisis curb in-person synagogue gatherings

Protocols that the hostages followed included talking to the gunman, staying close to exits and, later, using a chair as a weapon as a means of escape.

“In the last hour of our hostage crisis, the gunman became increasingly belligerent and threatening,” Cytron-Walker’s statement said. “Without the instruction we received, we would not have been prepared to act and flee when the situation presented itself.” Despite keeping a level head, he told the Forward that “every moment was terrifying.”

According to Brinner, the skills the rabbi used during the tense situation were crucial in the outcome. The Federation offers a “Safe Synagogue Seminar,” which covers not only “Run, Hide, Fight” and “Stop the Bleed” trainings, but also “situational awareness” and “greeter training,” Brinner said. Two dozen Bay Area synagogues and organizations went through the trainings in 2019 before the pandemic, and a handful have done so since.

The Federation also helped 20 synagogues apply for the latest round of security grants from the California Nonprofit Security Grant Program. The state program, which was made permanent in 2019 in the wake of the Chabad of Poway synagogue shooting and other attacks on religious institutions, grants funds to nonprofits such as synagogues, mosques and schools for security-related planning, equipment and training, as well as construction costs related to security or the hiring of guards. (In 2020, due to a state deficit caused by the pandemic, the program was not funded.)

In July 2021, the California Legislative Jewish Caucus successfully lobbied the governor to allocate close to $50 million to the program from the state budget. The program grants eligible institutions up to $200,000 for measures to defend against violent attacks and antisemitic hate crimes.

“We unfortunately find ourselves in a position as a community where we have to take extra steps to protect ourselves,” Assemblymember and caucus chair Jesse Gabriel told J. last fall. He noted that the program was “tremendously oversubscribed” in 2019, which is why he and his fellow caucus members pushed for more funding.

In a tweet, Gabriel said the Colleyville incident motivated him to ask for an expansion of the program.

“With @CAJewishCaucus colleagues, I’ll be introducing legislation to extend and strengthen CA’s Nonprofit Security Grant Program. We must protect all communities targeted by hate,” he wrote.

He elaborated in a statement. “Colleyville, Texas may be thousands of miles away, but the hostage situation at Congregation Beth Israel was deeply personal for many Jews in California,” he wrote. “It was a sad and shameful reminder that our houses of worship are always targets, and that security training and enhancements can mean the difference between life and death. Our Caucus is committed to ensuring that the State of California helps to protect our community and all other vulnerable communities targeted by hate.”

Over the last few years, security concerns have been heightened at synagogues in particular, and Bay Area and state organizations have even questioned whether their buildings should be visibly Jewish.

For Rabbi Stacy Friedman of Congregation Rodef Sholom, the three attacks on U.S. synagogues since 2018 have had a cumulative effect on her synagogue’s position on security. The San Rafael congregation is about to break ground on a new building, which has been designed with security in mind.

“Security in our new building would look different if these horrific events had not happened: Pittsburgh, Poway, Colleyville,” she said.

For Friedman, Cytron-Walker’s actions serve as a call to remember the important lesson of stepping up and taking action at a crucial time, as the rabbi did in Colleyville, and the fact that no one knows when the time will come.

“I will be thinking about that for a long time,” she said. “And I think that will change how I live.”

In recorded audio recovered from the livestream, the hostage-taker is heard seeking the freedom of Aafia Siddiqui, a relative by marriage of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the chief architect of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Because the assailant at one point reportedly referred to Siddiqui as “sister,” some initial reports erroneously concluded he was her real brother.

However, a lawyer for Siddiqui’s actual brother said his client was not the person inside the synagogue, nor did he have anything to do with it. The lawyer, John Floyd, is chairman of the Houston affiliate of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. CAIR and the “Free Dr. Aafia” movement condemned the hostage-taking.

“This assailant has nothing to do with Dr. Aafia, her family, or the global campaign to get justice for Dr. Aafia,” Floyd said in a statement. “We want the assailant to know that his actions are wicked and directly undermine those of us who are seeking justice for Dr. Aafia.”

Siddiqui had multiple antisemitic outbursts during and after her trial, demanding that no Jews be allowed on the jury and writing to then-President Obama: “Study the history of the Jews. They have always back-stabbed everyone who has taken pity on them and made the ‘fatal’ error of giving them shelter.”

Cytron-Walker, who answered the stranger’s knock on the shul door and welcomed him in, is known for his interfaith outreach. He is the synagogue’s first full-time rabbi and has been with the congregation since 2006. According to the website, he is a native of Lansing, Michigan, and he and his wife have two daughters. He served as president of the Southwest Association of Reform Rabbis and has done work on behalf of the LGBTQ community. Before becoming a rabbi, he worked for a human rights organization in Detroit and a soup kitchen in Amherst, Massachusetts.

JTA contributed to this report.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.