“They are us. There’s no distinction”: Terror of synagogue standoff is no isolated incident to Texas Jewish leaders

An armored law enforcement vehicle is seen in the area where a man took four people hostage at a synagogue in Colleyville on Saturday, Jan. 15, 2022. (Reuters/Shelby Tauber, Reuters/Shelby Tauber)

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In the hours after a rabbi and three congregants were taken hostage at a synagogue in North Texas, Jewish leaders in Houston began planning a vigil.

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They had wondered whether gathering virtually Saturday night was the right choice. At the time, they didn’t know that the hostages at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville would be freed after a nearly 11-hour standoff. They only imagined that the attack could go through the night, said Rabbi Scott Hausman-Weiss, who was involved in the preparations. There were security measures to be considered, even for a Zoom meeting. Still, they wanted to offer comfort to their people.

The Congregation Beth Israel congregants being held captive were hundreds of miles away, but the reach of the assault was felt far and wide.

While what occurred Saturday in a small city near Fort Worth appears to have been an isolated incident, it was not a standalone occurrence, as Jewish Americans have been publicly targeted and terrorized with increased frequency in recent years.

“They are us. There’s no distinction. Anywhere they are in danger, we are,” Hausman-Weiss, the founding rabbi of the Congregation Shma Koleinu, said Sunday morning in an interview, describing the reverberations of attacks on Jewish communities.

On what is regularly observed as a day of rest and worship in Judaism, a man — since confirmed by authorities as a British national — took hostages during Saturday morning services at the synagogue. The hostages, including Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, made it out physically unharmed while the hostage-taker was killed after a rescue team breached the building.

Shortly after news emerged that the hostages were safe, hundreds of participants logged into the Houston Zoom meeting late Saturday night for what had turned into a gathering of prayer and thanks giving. Hausman-Weiss delivered a piece he hoped would uplift a community in pain.

“We know that a broken heart can do horrific damage in the throes of seeking to be heard,” Hausman-Weiss told those who had gathered. “But we will not allow this to break us. We will not allow our resolve that strives to lift all human spirits to be deterred.”

The hostage-taking is the latest in a series of antisemitic attacks and incidents around Texas and the United States. From October to December, there were at least 10 antisemitic incidents in the state, primarily in Central Texas, according to the Anti-Defamation League, which advocates for justice for Jewish people.

Last fall, officials investigated a fire that was reported at the time to cause about $25,000 in damage to an Austin synagogue. That came after students vandalized an Austin high school with swastikas, homophobic language and anti-Black racist slurs. Around the same time, about a dozen people displayed a banner targeting Jewish people at a highway overpass in Austin. The banner included a link to a website for an antisemitic group that the Anti-Defamation League says includes neo-Nazis. Antisemitic flyers were also recently scattered in various cities and neighborhoods in Hays County, south of Austin.

Around the United States in 2021, Jews have been threatened and attacked and their houses of worship have been vandalized. In Los Angeles, a university is responding to a slew of antisemitic remarks made by students. In Tennessee, an assistant high school principal was removed from her job in August and reassigned after posting antisemitic messages online.

Even the halls of power have featured such hate in recent months — last October, the U.S. State Department found a swastika in one of its elevators.

“What’s happening today is a whole other level, when human life is at risk,” Renee Lafair, regional director for the Anti-Defamation League in Austin, said Saturday afternoon while the hostages were still held captive at Beth Israel. “I think when you see a series of antisemitic incidents that grow in frequency and grow in scope and danger, for a lot of people in the Jewish community this brings fears of greater societal issues and harkens back to some of our history, so it makes people concerned and scared.

“When antisemitism increases, it’s usually a sign of greater issues of hate and division going on in society.”

Responses to the standoff in Colleyville on Saturday underscored how the sense of danger to other Jewish communities was not as isolated as the hostage-taking in Colleyville appeared to be.

Law enforcement in other Texas communities, including Fort Worth and Harris County, said they were increasing patrols around synagogues. Similar precautionary measures were taken in large cities like Los Angeles. Other Jewish leaders in Texas took to Facebook to alert congregants. Rabbi Mara Nathan of San Antonio’s Temple Beth-El wrote that while the hostage-taking in Colleyville appeared to be an “isolated event perpetuated by a single actor,” they would maintain a “heightened sense of security.”

Security conversations around places of worship have in recent years taken place in the shadow of deadly attacks, like the 2018 shooting at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, in which an armed man shouting antisemitic slurs opened fired inside the synagogue and killed 11 congregants.

In a statement released Sunday afternoon, Cytron-Walker, the Colleyville rabbi, pointed to multiple security courses he and his congregation had received as the reason he and other hostages survived.

“In the last hour of our hostage crisis, the gunman became increasingly belligerent and threatening,” Cytron-Walker said. “Without the instruction we received, we would not have been prepared to act and flee when the situation presented itself."

Local Dallas television station WFAA captured video showing people running out a door of the synagogue, followed by a man, who appears to be holding a gun, who opens the same door and then closes it.

News reports have indicated the hostage-taker demanded the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist who is in federal prison in Texas after being convicted of attempting to kill U.S. soldiers, though an attorney for Siddiqui has since condemned “any violence perpetrated” in her name. FBI officials have said the hostage-taker was “singularly focused on one issue and it was not specifically related to the Jewish community.”

But the hostage-taker’s decision to choose a synagogue as the place to carry out his demands cannot be separated from antisemitism, Jewish leaders in Texas said on Sunday.

“The expression wasn’t antisemitic, but it was built on some concept of antisemitism,” said Rabbi Joshua Fixler, an associate rabbi at Congregation Emanu El in Houston.

“I do think that sometimes there can be a setting aside of antisemitism as not a serious of concern as other issues and other hatreds and that is one of the things that leads Jews to continue to be threatened by antisemitism,” Fixler said.

On Sunday, President Joe Biden called the hostage situation in Colleyville an “act of terror” and denounced acts driven by antisemitism. Gov. Greg Abbott did not explicitly denounce antisemitism immediately following the attack, though he announced the escape of the hostages Saturday night in a post on Twitter, saying prayers were answered. On Sunday, Abbott also said on Twitter that he had spoken to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

On Sunday, Jewish leaders around Texas acknowledged that the fear renewed by the hostage situation could affect congregants’ willingness to return to in-person services. It would take time to understand the full impact on their congregations and communities and the work that would be needed to support them, they said.

“This is a day of both gratitude and recognition of the layered feelings of fear,” said Rabbi Kim Herzog Cohen of Temple Emanu-El Dallas. “I think we have to continue to support each other and the incredible wisdom of our faith traditions to guide us in how to be able to give each other courage and speak the truth of our souls and our hearts to understand what are the systemic reasons [behind why] extremism and hatred can grow.”

The reach of Saturday’s hostage-taking has already stretched beyond Texas and even the United States.

"Once again, Jews have come under attack simply because they are Jews,” Shimon Koffler Fogel, the CEO of the Canada-based Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, said in a statement. “While Texas feels like it is far from Canada, incidents like this have a serious impact on Jews around the world who will have emerged from the Sabbath this week with two thoughts. One of horror and concern for their fellow Jews; and one of relief that this week, it wasn't their synagogue that was targeted."

Mitchell Ferman contributed to this report.

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