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Texas Rabbi who was held hostage says we can't live in fear


It began with a knock at the door of Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker's synagogue, the Congregation Beth Israel in the suburbs of Fort Worth, Texas. Rabbi Charlie, as he's known, talked with the man who knocked. He was cold, so the rabbi made him tea. And then, as prayers got underway, the rabbi heard a click. The man had pulled a gun and went on to hold Rabbi Charlie and a few congregants hostage for 11 hours.

Rabbi Charlie joins us now. I want to say welcome, and I'm so glad you're safe, that you're OK.

CHARLIE CYTRON-WALKER: Thank you. I appreciate that.

KELLY: I mean, I hesitate to ask you to relive any of this. But when you heard that click, would you just describe what was going through your mind as you realized what was happening?

CYTRON-WALKER: When I heard the click, it sounded like it could have been a gun. I hoped it was not. When I turned around, everything looked normal. And so during silent prayer, I left the bimah. I went to approach the individual just in case, just because I didn't know what the situation was. He had come in to get warm. I spoke with him one on one, quietly, that he was welcome to stay for the rest of the service if he had just come in to get warm. And while I was talking with him, he pulled out a gun. It was covered by his coat. And that's how that happened.

KELLY: Yeah. And then the next 11 hours happened, as people became aware on the outside of what was happening. The FBI tried to negotiate. Describe the moment when you decided it was time to run. You picked up a chair. You threw it.

CYTRON-WALKER: Yeah. He had just finished yelling at the negotiator. The call was ended. He was very agitated. And then all of the sudden, he became calm and asked me if we had any juice. So I went into our kitchen. I found him a drink and a cup. And I brought it over to him.

As he got his drink, he was talking with us and lecturing to us about how he had been so compassionate. And his gun wasn't in a great position for him to access it, and he was holding liquid in his hand. So I picked up the chair that was right in front of me. I was the closest to him. I had been the closest to him all day. The other two people in the room with me were a little bit closer to the door. And so I made sure that they were ready to go. And I told them to run.

And so I picked up the chair and threw it at him and headed for the door. I didn't even hear a shot fired. Fortunately, we were able to escape.

KELLY: And you have said that you had training, anticipating a scenario like this and that that helped you survive. How so?

CYTRON-WALKER: We're not supposed to call it training because it was educational sessions. It was courses. It was a session here or there. We had had these with the FBI and with Secure Communities Network (ph), with the Anti-Defamation League and with our local police force.

KELLY: I'm so glad you had that training and also so horrified that it should be necessary, that we live in a world where the likelihood of a violent attack on a synagogue is such that a rabbi would need regular - call it what you want - training sessions in the event of something like this in order to survive.

CYTRON-WALKER: There has been too many situations at synagogues, too much violence in our schools, too much violence overall within our society. And it's horrible. It's not sustainable. It's something that we collectively need to be able to address. And at the same time, we have to deal with the practical reality.

KELLY: I have to ask - the next time there's a knock at your door, and a stranger says - I'm cold. Can I have something to drink? - what will you do?

CYTRON-WALKER: This one individual was one individual. And it's - I have led thousands and thousands of services. This was the first time we had something along those lines.

KELLY: Sure. And one hopes it would never be repeated, but...

CYTRON-WALKER: Amen. Amen. And so when someone comes to the door, they are nervous. They are questioning. They're asking - am I going to be accepted? - whether they're somebody who's Jewish who's coming in from another community or from our community or whether they're not Jewish. And maybe they're exploring Judaism for the first time, or they just want to see what a Jewish service is all about because they're curious. And they're asking, am I going to belong? And I want them to know that they are going to belong. We can't forget about who we are. Hospitality means the world.

KELLY: Yeah. It's such a huge challenge - that balance. You want to keep your people safe, but you also want to say the door is open. Please join us. Everyone is welcome. How do you do that at a small synagogue? Will you change security going forward?

CYTRON-WALKER: I don't know. I don't know, but I will tell you that we will do what we always do, which is the best we can. Whether we're in a synagogue or a church or a mosque, whether we are religious or not, we are imperfect human beings, trying to live the best we can because we can't know the future. We can't know what's coming. And we also can't live in fear every step of the way.

KELLY: Last question, Rabbi Charlie, which is simply this - is there anything you would wish to say to the man who held you hostage or to his family?

CYTRON-WALKER: Give me a moment. I've not been asked that before.

I would say to his family, I am so sorry. I'm so sorry that you had to endure this tragedy. It's horrible for all of us.

KELLY: We've been speaking with Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. Rabbi Charlie, it was good to speak with you. Thank you.

CYTRON-WALKER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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