Exclusive: Rabbi at center of Texas hostage standoff resigned in fall after board voted not to renew contract
The Texas rabbi celebrated around the world as a hero for freeing himself and several congregants from a gunman in an 11-hour synagogue siege had resigned this fall after the congregation’s board voted not to renew his contract, the Forward has learned.
The board decision came despite what many described as overwhelming support for Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker by the membership of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville.
“I can assure you he would have been unanimously voted to stay,” Anna Eisen, a co-founder of the synagogue, said in an interview. “As a congregation we have been very heartbroken and distraught,” she added. “I myself have begged him to stay but I also realize that he has given us 16 years of his life.”
In an email to a former congregant sent Nov. 1, Congregation Beth Israel’s treasurer, Cindy Whitton, said the board of directors had planned to recommend against renewal ahead of a congregational meeting required by the its bylaws, but that the rabbi, Charlie Cytron-Walker, “decided that he did not want to go to the membership for a vote,” instead choosing to leave when his contract expires in June.
“The board believes that the synagogue needs a new spark after 15 years,” Whitton wrote to the former congregant, Neal Gray, citing declining membership and religious school enrollment.
Gray had written to the synagogue’s president, Michael Finfer, after an Oct. 28 email from Finfer and Cytron-Walker announcing the resignation. That announcement, said another congregant, Stuart Yarus, caused “enormous outcry.”
In it, Finfer wrote that “this was not an easy decision for any of us” and Cytron-Walker said: “This is a very difficult moment.”
“I love you and I love this congregation,” the rabbi added. “That’s why this is so challenging for me and that’s why it’s so important that we part ways in peace.
“There will be a lot of uncertainty for all of us in the next few months,” he continued. “Please know that I’ll be working with the board to ensure as smooth a transition as possible.”
Rabbi Ben Sternman of Adat Chaverim in Plano, Texas, who is part of a foursome of area Reform rabbis including Cytron-Walker that meets weekly, said that in October, “he showed up for lunch one week and he was looking very upset.”
Finfer and other board members did not respond to emails requesting comment on Wednesday. Cytron-Walker said in an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency after this article was first published that he is indeed looking for another job but wants the world’s focus to remain on the challenges presented by this weekend’s events.
“My congregation, Congregation Beth Israel, and Colleyville, have just undergone a traumatic experience — I’ve just undergone a traumatic experience,” he said. “And that’s where the focus needs to be.”
Cytron-Walker, who told the Forward and other outlets on Monday that he had engineered the escape by throwing a chair at the gunman, was previously known for his social justice advocacy and interfaith bridge-building. He has has led the synagogue, which sits among the new mansions and manicured lawns of the booming Dallas-Fort Worth corridor, since 2006.
Marta Johnson, who had worked in recent years as High Holiday soloist at the synagogue, said “a lot of people in the congregation are pretty upset” about his impending departure.
“It’s kind of shocking,” said Johnson, whose own work with the synagogue has also been discontinued. “He’s being held as a hero internationally.”
No congregational vote
Rabbi Sternman said both Cytron-Walker and Congregation Beth Israel entered “placement” with the Union for Reform Judaism – the rabbi seeking another pulpit and the congregation seeking an interim rabbi – in November. The synagogue’s online calendar listed meetings for a rabbinic search committee on Jan. 9 and Jan. 13 – just two days before the attack.
Rabbi Sternman said his friend had not been looking to move to a larger synagogue or bigger city. “I know he wants to stay with a smaller congregation,” he said. Asked whether this weekend’s events might alter Cytron-Walker’s plans, a Reform leader with knowledge of the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity said: “I don’t think anything has changed.”
Devorah Titunik was one of several congregants who said this was not the first time the board had tried to remove Cytron-Walker. Two or three years ago, she said, the matter was put to a congregational vote and “like 90% voted to keep him,” rejecting a board recommendation.
“I talked to him about it,” she said of this fall’s resignation. “He said if came to another vote, it might split the congregation. So he decided to step aside. But that wouldn’t have happened had the board not tried not to renew his contract. His concern was for us, it wasn’t for himself. He’s a mensch.”
Among the frustrations for Titunik and others was that they were never informed about what conflicts or issues had led to the board’s opposition to renewing the contract, or told which board members voted yea or nay. “The other problem I have is: why is this secret?” Gray, the ex-congregant, said in an interview. “When you have a secret vote, you don’t have accountability.”
Sandy Barenholtz-Silverman, who attends Beth Israel and described Cytron-Walker as “beloved” and “amazing with people, from babies to seniors,” shared Gray’s concern. “They would not tell us why they want him to resign,” she said.
A man named Itamar Gelbman posted to Facebook on Saturday that he had left Congregation Beth Israel because Cytron-Walker referred to Israel as an apartheid state and did not allow guns in the shul. Those claims were disputed by congregants and the rabbi himself.
A picture of Cytron-Walker at a celebration of Yom Ha’atzma’ut — Israel’s independence day — was added to the Facebook thread. Josh Wilner, one of several people who responded, said he had attended pro-Israels events at the synagogue that the rabbi led.
“That would have been the time for the rabbi to get up and say, ‘We should support BDS,’” Wilner said. “I never heard word one of anything I would consider anti-Zionist or anti-Israel.”
In the Wednesday interview with JTA, Cytron-Walker said that he does not believe Israel is an apartheid state, and said that Beth Israel does allow people with concealed-carry permits to bring weapons into the building. While Texas is an open-carry state, he said, “we don’t feel that open carry should be part of a synagogue service,” adding: “I would have hoped that one of the people in the synagogue that morning, one of the members from the synagogue, had had a gun on them to have ended things a little bit earlier.”
Regarding Israel, the rabbi noted that his synagogue works with the Ofek Learning Hub to provide Israeli teachers for online classes, and said “we sing Hatikvah” — Israel’s national anthem — “at the end of every religious school.”
“I’m a huge supporter of Israel,” he said. “When I teach about Israel, I teach about how Israel is complicated.”
Cytron-Walker, who grew up in Lansing, Michigan, was Colleyville’s first full-time rabbi – and it was his first pulpit after his 2006 ordination from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. The congregation grew out of a 1998 chavurah that started with a Yom Kippur break-fast, and was officially incorporated in 1999 with 25 member-families. It opened its modest building with a 160-seat sanctuary in 2005.
Saturday’s crisis began in the middle of Shabbat services, which were livestreaming via Facebook, when British man seeking shelter, who the rabbi had earlier welcomed with a cup of tea, pulled out a gun. The man demanded the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani woman serving an 86-year sentence for terrorism, and said he had come to the synagogue because it was close to the prison where she is being held and because “Jews control the world.”
The 11-hour ordeal, which ended with the gunman’s death but no other injuries, drew more than 200 law-enforcement personnel to Colleyville and international headlines. Cytron-Walker gave emotional interviews on Monday to the Forward, CBS News, The New York Times and other outlets, and that evening led an interfaith solidarity service in nearby Southlake, Texas.
He has fielded phone calls from President Joe Biden and Israel Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, and spoken to Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of Manhattan’s Central Synagogue, who the hostages had called during the crisis at the demand of the gunman.
“I’m not going to say that there’s anything special about me,” Cytron-Walker said in the Forward interview. “We were very fortunate.”
Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis of Congregation Kol-Ami in Flower Mound, Texas, part of Cytron-Walker’s weekly lunch foursome, declined to comment on his friend’s departure, saying Wednesday morning: “We’ll just have to let the congregation and Rabbi Charlie sort that out.”
Dennis had said in an interview on Tuesday that he looked up to his colleague, calling him “my hero.”
“His performance under stress was so poised and effective,” Dennis said. “I am envious. I am aghast.”
Yarus, a Beth Israel congregant, acknowledged that Cytron-Walker, like all people, “is not perfect.”
“He is not all things to all people,” Yarus said in an interview. “He is possibly as good a rabbi as one would expect and he has proven himself a hero.”
For his own part, Cytron-Walker said on Monday morning that, at that point, he had been in limited communication with members of his congregation since the standoff. The healing service that he led Monday evening was meant, in part, to give him a chance to connect with the Beth Israel community, and afterward, he gave extended hugs to people at the front of the church and then spent a long time at the head of a receiving line of well-wishers.
“The whole experience — this whole thing — has just been so overwhelming that I really, I’m still processing it myself,” he said Monday morning, “so I would say there’s been some communication but there hasn’t been enough.”
In the JTA interview on Wednesday, Cytron-Walker said it had been “incredibly overwhelming to see the level of support that we have received from our local community, our national community and the global community,” and that Beth Israel is still struggling to figure out how to heal.
“We’re really trying to figure out what we need to do,” he said, noting that he had encouraged congregants to seek therapy if they need it. “We’ve got repairs to make to the congregation and we’re making arrangements so that we can have services this weekend.”
He cautioned against overreacting to the attack, saying that concerns for security must be balanced against the Jewish mandate to welcome the stranger. “It’s such a random occurrence, and the percentages are so low,” he said of an antisemitic incident occurring at services. “I have literally led thousands and thousands of services at Congregation Beth Israel, and this was the first time we had such a traumatic incident.
“We have to be hospitable and we have to be secure,” he said. “And we have to find ways to strike that balance.”
Jodi Rudoren and Lauren Markoe contributed reporting.
Keep up with our complete coverage of the aftermath of hostage-taking at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas.
Correction: The original version of this article mistakenly said that Anna Eisen, Congregation Beth Israel’s co-founder, had disputed Marta Johnson’s status as a past cantorial soloist for the synagogue; a spokeswoman for the congregation clarified after publication that she had been speaking about a different singer.