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‘You’re running out of time’: Rabbi details calls with Texas terrorist

Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl of Central Synagogue.

Rabbi Angela Warnick Buchdahl of Central Synagogue. Courtesy of Angela Buchdahl

This essay is adapted from the sermon that Rabbi Angela Buchdahl delivered Friday night at Central Synagogue in Manhattan. Buchdahl, Central’s senior rabbi, fielded two cellphone calls last Saturday from Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, where a British gunman had taken a rabbi and three congregants hostage.

The gunman, Malik Faisal Akram, asked the rabbi to call Buchdahl, whose name he had seen on lists of prominent American Jews, on the deranged belief that she could engineer the release of a Pakistani woman convicted of terrorism. Click here to see video of the sermon as delivered.

When I sat down to write this sermon, I couldn’t even begin. And then I realized I simply needed to start with something that Jews have done for centuries, which is to offer a blessing:

Baruch atah adonai eloheinu melech ha’olam, matir asurim. Blessed are you, eternal God, who frees the captive.

You freed the captives. Thank God. The alternative was unimaginable.

I also want to thank and bless Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who showed unearthly calm, unflagging humanity and heroic courage in unthinkable circumstances. And I bless the three other congregants, who are also my heroes. And I’m grateful to our synagogue’s head of security, and to law enforcement and the many Jewish organizations who work to keep our community safe in ways we don’t always see or acknowledge.

I begin with gratitude because that was the overwhelming emotion I felt when the siege was over. But my secondary rush of feelings has been much harder to digest. More ominous.

I cannot assure you that this will not happen again. And I do not have some neat pronouncement for how we will fight back the alarming, ugly surge of antisemitism.

I cannot tell you that I’m not replaying Rabbi Cytron-Walker’s unfaltering voice on my cellphone.

“We have an actual gunman who is claiming to have bombs and he wants to talk to you,” he said. “If you can call me back at this number that would be greatly appreciated. This is not a joke.”

Thank God this terrifying episode ended safely. But not simply. And I remain deeply unsettled. If you are a Jew in America today and you are not feeling unsettled, you are not paying enough attention.

I am unsettled because the world has only the most simplistic understanding of antisemitism. If someone says they hate Jews, or wants to kill Jews — we call it antisemitism.

But even educated people, even the FBI, do not always recognize its far more insidious guise as the trope that Jews are all-powerful and control everything. We saw how dangerous this age-old conspiracy theory can be.

I am unsettled because I saw firsthand that you cannot negotiate with a terrorist. And more and more people in our country and around the globe are captivated by terrifying, hateful ideologies that they value more than their very lives.

I am unsettled because Rabbi Cytron-Walker’s kindness and humanity were used against him. He opened his door to this man, and gave him tea. This rabbi welcomes the stranger and this is his reward?

We have to protect ourselves and we cannot be naïve. But if we only build fortresses around our sanctuaries and our hearts, hate wins.

I am unsettled because I heard the terrifying voice of radical extremism — filtered through the mind of a deranged person, who was able to get a gun and to hold four people — and an entire Jewish community — hostage to his terror.

I think of the ripple effects, the countless resources we will spend, to prevent it from happening again.

When the gunman called me the second time, he said: “I’m running out of patience. And you’re running out of time.”

I had already talked to the authorities. I knew there was nothing else I could do. But wait — and pray.

I mean, I really prayed: a trembling, pleading prayer, the same words I later learned that Rabbi Cytron-Walker uttered while being held captive:

Hashkiveynu adonai eloheinu, l’shalom.
V’haamideinu malkeinu l’chayyim.
Help us lie down in peace, God.
And to rise up again to life renewed.

You could say my prayer — all of our prayers — were answered. The prayers of those four families and the congregation. The prayers of a breathless, worldwide Jewish community.

But we’ve emerged and now we are anxious, angry, frightened.

I cannot tell you not to feel those things. I am feeling them myself. And I don’t quite know what to do next.

So I looked to this week’s Torah portion, Jethro, and the message was just so pertinent, it felt like God was winking at me.

“You cannot do it alone,” Jethro tells Moses, who was consumed under the weight of leading.

This is a message for all of us.

I know that I could not have been on those calls on Saturday without my husband, Jacob, right at my side, and Rabbi Cytron-Walker’s steady voice on the other side.

I could not do this without all of you, showing up tonight, whether in this space or online. You’ve shown up for courage in the face of fear.

Even as this pandemic has tested us and forced so many of us to be more alone than we ever thought we would be, our tradition keeps pushing us back into community. And it also tells us we are not meant to do this only with other Jews.

It is important that the person who shares this essential wisdom, Jethro — Moses’s father-in-law — is not Jewish.

I saw every faith community show up for us last weekend. We need to partner with people of every faith, and good faith, in the fight against antisemitism, racism, extremism, and hatred of every kind.

We cannot do it alone. And thank goodness we do not have to.

I began with one blessing, and I’ll end with another. It’s taken from the words of the prophet Zecheriah, and the Reform movement recites it on Tisha B’av, the day that commemorates some of the most tragic episodes in Jewish history.

Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olan, asher asanu asirei tikvah.

Blessed are you, God, who makes us captives — of hope.

Angela Buchdahl is senior rabbi of Central Synagogue in Manhattan and a member of the Forward Association.

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