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Texas rabbi warns against fear: ‘I continue to wear my yarmulke proudly’

The Texas rabbi who survived a hostage-taking at his synagogue last Shabbat said Thursday he wears a yarmulke everywhere he goes in his North Texas community, but that others should choose for themselves whether to make their Jewishness visibly obvious.

“People need to do what they’re good with,” said Charlie Cytron-Walker. “I get a lot of positivity. That’s not necessarily the case everywhere in the country. And it really depends on who you are and what your comfort level is.”

“I continue to wear my yarmulke proudly. It’s really up to you,” he added. “And I would hope and I would pray that we’re able to get past the sense of fear.”

Cytron-Walker, who escaped from the hostage-taker along with three congregants, made his remarks on an hourlong Zoom call sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League on which FBI Director Christopher Wray also spoke.

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker was held hostage inside Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, Jan. 15, 2022.

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker was held hostage inside Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, Jan. 15, 2022.

The call was a chance for Cytron-Walker to connect with 7,500 people, mostly Jewish, who joined the meeting to hear him talk about the 11 hours he spent as a hostage and to express their gratitude for his safety and admiration for his bravery and quick-thinking, which allowed the hostages to escape.

It was also an opportunity for Wray to emphasize how seriously the FBI takes antisemitism, and elaborate on what the bureau is doing to address attacks on Jews across the country — reassurances many in the Jewish community may have needed after the FBI special agent in charge on the scene during the hostage-taking said, after the incident was over on Saturday, that the gunman’s motives were “not specifically-related to the Jewish community.”

“Let me be clear and blunt,” Wray said. “The FBI is and has been treating Saturday’s events as an act of terrorism, targeting the Jewish community.”

The ADL, which bills itself as the oldest anti-hate group in the nation, used the meeting to assure the Jewish community that its trust in the FBI was strong, and to encourage Jews to take the security training courses that both Cytron-Walker and Wray said was key to the survival of the hostages.

In interviews, the rabbi has detailed how training offered by the Secure Community Network, the ADL and the FBI had taught him to move toward the exits, to try to get the gunman to see him as a human being and to make a bold move if the opportunity arose to escape.

ADL officials on the call, who including CEO Jonathan Greenblatt, also encouraged Jews to lobby Congress for more funding for the Non-Profit Security Grant Program, and to lobby the Senate to confirm Deborah Lipstadt as the State Department’s special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism. Nominated by President Biden in July, Lipstadt’s confirmation has been held up by Republican senators.

The special envoy’s job deals with antisemitism internationally. American Jewish leaders, shaken by the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and its antisemitic underpinnings, have called for the creation of a new liaison to the Jewish community focused on domestic terrorism. The Texas attack has also sparked a debate among Jewish groups as to whether it should be considered an incident of domestic or global terrorism.

’Outwardly Jewish’

During the call, Rabbi Cytron-Walker, seated in front of a bookshelf and wearing a marine blue V-neck sweater, exuded the calm for which he has been praised in the days following the attack. Thanking listeners for their good wishes, and apologizing for not answering all their questions, he asked the Jewish community not to succumb to fear.

He said his own synagogue, Beth Israel, in Colleyville — a Fort Worth suburb — would be hosting services this week on both Friday and Saturday, and that its religious school would be open on Sunday.

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“I don’t believe, in spite of the increase in antisemitism, this is necessarily a time of danger,” said Cytron-Walker, who is part of the Reform movement.

And he talked about his own decision to wear a yarmulke, which he made before he became a rabbi more than 20 years ago.

He said he was working as assistant director of a small soup kitchen in Amherst, Massachusetts, when a volunteer walked in wearing a yarmulke.

“I assume you’re Orthodox,” he recalls telling the man. But the man wasn’t, and it made the future rabbi think that maybe he should wear one too.

“I just thought, you know, why not give it a try?” Cytron-Walker said. “You know, be outward about my Judaism.”

“I also wear my yarmulke because it’s part of who I am. It’s part of my relationship with God,” he added. “An aspect of my understanding of my relationship with my people.”

Evolving threats

While Wray assured the Jewish community that the FBI has its back, he also acknowledged that combating antisemitic threats has become more challenging in recent years. He had worked on the investigation that followed 9/11, he said, a plot which involved many people planning over a long length of time, and raising significant amounts of money.

Christopher Wray

Christopher Wray testifies on his nomination to be the FBI director on July 12, 2017 Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

“There’s a lot of dots to connect,” he said, noting that such complicated terror plots often yield clues that allow law enforcement to foil them. But in recent years, he said, more antisemitic attacks have been carried out by lone wolves, and have tended to be fairly simple.

“There are a lot fewer dots,” he said. “And a lot less time in which to connect them.” But such unsophisticated plots, Wray added, are “just as deadly.”

That is why, he said, it’s so important for the Jewish community to continue to work with the FBI and other law enforcement agencies, and to come forward with any information that might help prevent an incident.

“The eyes and ears part is huge,” he said.

The gunman, Malik Faisal Akram, was killed by law enforcement shortly after Cytron-Walker saw an opportunity to flee. He and two hostages – the third, who was older, had been released a few hours before — moved toward an exit. The rabbi threw a chair at Akram, and distracted him long enough to allow for an escape. Law enforcement then killed the gunman, who throughout the ordeal had expressed a belief in conspiracy theories about Jews controlling the world.

Akram thought that the rabbi could put a call into another rabbi, Angela Buchdahl, of Central Synagogue in New York City, and that she could arrange for a convicted terrorist serving a sentence at a nearby federal facility to be freed. According to The Washington Post, Akram had seen her name on lists of influential rabbis, and thought she could grant his wish.

“I tried to explain to him to the best of my ability that it doesn’t work that way,” Cytron-Walker said on the Zoom call.

He said he didn’t detect anything threatening about Akram when he first came to the synagogue’s locked door and asked the rabbi if it was a shelter, saying that he had had little to eat.

“I did an initial look at him. He looked like he was telling the truth. There were no initial red flags. So we opened the door.”

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