Rabbi Linda Bertenthal had special reason to be concerned Saturday, Jan. 15, waiting anxiously as the tense events unfolded over 11 hours at a Jewish synagogue in Colleyville, Tex.
Her 30-year-old daughter Sarah Beth and her husband Michael have been members there since early 2020. They were married last August, in an outdoor ceremony at a wildlife refuge near Waco. The rabbi who was held hostage Saturday — Charlie Cytron-Walker — could not officiate that wedding.
Rabbi Linda joined the congregation Temple Emanuel, Davenport, as Interim Rabbi on July 1, 2018. She was later hired as permanent rabbi and now shares rabbinical duties with Temple Emanuel and Congregation Beth Israel (Rock Island), which are consolidating in Davenport.
Bertenthal’s daughter (who works in web design and social media marketing) and son-in-law moved to Texas in January 2020, because Michael is a regional airline pilot, and “Dallas-Fort Worth is an amazing hub for flying. So it just works very well professionally,” Bertenthal said Monday. They looked at three synagogues to join down there, within driving distance of their home in Argyle, Tex., 30 miles north of Fort Worth, and 19 miles north of Colleyville’s Congregation Beth Israel.
“She visited them all online because of COVID-19, and they eventually figured out that Rabbi Charlie was the rabbi that she wanted,” Bertenthal said. “Charlie is a very special person, and he’s just been extraordinarily supportive to her. And she loves him and she was just falling apart on Saturday, when he was in so much danger.
“And she didn’t even know which members of the congregation were in there with him. But just with the terror of knowing that her people were there and she was in a kind of a panic, even though she herself wasn’t in danger,” her mom said. “As soon as she got the email from the congregation that the situation was resolved and everyone was safe, that all of their people were safe, she noticed immediately, this huge change in her breathing.
“She said, she realized she was breathing very shallow for hours,” Bertenthal said. “And she noticed how all the muscles in her body suddenly relaxed. She hadn’t realized how tense she was.”
“When I met Rabbi Charlie, I was so impressed by him,” she said of meeting him last August. “I have so much personal gratitude towards him for all the support that he has been to my daughter.”
The Colleyville congregation has 140 members, compared to about 100 each in Davenport and Rock Island — which are consolidating into a new Davenport building. The Tri-City Jewish Center, Rock Island, is being converted to a new YMCA and public library.
A day-long nightmare
In Colleyville, only a few members were attending the weekly Saturday Shabbat service because of COVID. Bertenthal led her service Saturday online from her home, because of the big QC snow on Friday night.
Sarah Beth did not attend the Texas service, but found out about the hostage situation through a TV news report. “She said it was just like incredibly surreal to see her congregation on the TV and find out what was happening,” Bertenthal said.
A gunman took four hostages, including Rabbi Charlie. Police got an emergency call at 10:41 a.m. They rushed to the synagogue and set up a perimeter, evacuating residents nearby, police said. Soon, nearly 200 local, state and federal law enforcement, including the FBI and the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, were on hand, FBI Dallas Special Agent in Charge Matthew DeSarno said.
The standoff in Texas ended around 9 p.m. Saturday when the last three hostages, who included Rabbi Charlie, escaped from the gunman and an FBI SWAT team rushed in. The captor, Malik Faisal Akram, 44, was killed. A fourth hostage was released earlier.
Bertenthal said she and the Colleyville congregation were very impressed with the size and scope of the law enforcement response to the situation.
“We were blown away by that,” Bertenthal said, noting her daughter was also tracking updates on Twitter, as individual reporters were posting before their official news reports went on air.
“She said that was a huge mistake because there were all these horrible people on Twitter posting these horrible things, horrible anti-Semitic things, which just made her feel worse,” the rabbi said. “Some people were posting anti-police things.”
“They’re trying to save my people, like, stop bashing them,” Bertenthal said, quoting Sarah Beth. “All these different political points off the situation and it felt so callous to her. Those are human beings in there; those are real human beings with families, who love them in a community who loves them and you’re making politics and stop it.”
The QC rabbi first found out about the situation after 12:45 p.m. Saturday (after a Torah lesson) in a text from a congregant asking how they could pray for the people in Texas.
“I thought something bad is happening, so I immediately got on the news to figure out what was happening in Texas and then was horrified to see there was my daughter’s congregation,” Bertenthal said. “Then I went into my Facebook and saw that she had Facebook messaged me, asking me to pray for her rabbi. So then I got in touch with her and we talked briefly and then I just started asking if she was able to pray for them and I put it on a Facebook page and the congregation’s Facebook page and I put the message out through the Jewish Federation.”
“And then we all just kind of hunkered down for hour after hour after hour after hour,” she said.
Recalling the 2018 mass shooting
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of Tree of Life in Pittsburgh, Penn., who survived the 2018 massacre there, America’s deadliest anti-Semitic attack, said in a statement that alongside the relief that the Texas hostages were safe, “my heart is heavy.”
“While everyone is physically safe, they are also forever changed,” Myers said. “My own community knows too well the pain, trauma and lost sense of security that comes when violence forces its way in, especially into our sacred spaces.”
That anti-Semitic mass shooting also took place during a Saturday morning service, Oct. 27, 2018, at the Tree of Life – Or L’Simcha Congregation in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh. The congregation, along with New Light Congregation and Congregation Dor Hadash, which also worshipped in the building, was attacked during Shabbat morning services.
The suspect there killed 11 people and wounded six, including several Holocaust survivors. It was the deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the United States.
The Texas ordeal felt like a “punch in the face for really all of us in the Reform movement of Judaism, to have one of our synagogues targeted in this way,” Bertenthal said. “We were all really hurting. Really trying to figure out like how to be there for our congregants who were scared. I was trying to figure out how to help my daughter, who was feeling this helplessness that she felt was so intense, that it was kind of crushing her.”
Rabbi Charlie planned to hold a healing service tonight in Colleyville at a friendly church, since their synagogue remains closed to the public.
Like the QC Jewish congregations, Rabbi Charlie has been instrumental in building interdenominational cooperation among faith communities.
“He’s developing these amazing relationships with the Christian community, in the Muslim community,” Bertenthal said.
“Just the thought of that place that they had so lovingly created being under attack and damaged and not available to them, is its own separate pain,” she said. “Of course, the life and well-being of the people who were taken hostage was everyone’s first priority. So there’s enormous relief.”
Rabbi credits training for escape
Rabbi Charlie credited security training with the successful escape — which involved whispered instructions, edging closer to the door and talking with the gunman, who was agitated and ranting, according to a Monday account in The New York Times.
President Biden called the attack an “act of terror” on Sunday, and the F.B.I. said it was investigating the attack as a “terrorism-related matter.”
Synagogues across the U.S. have paid increasing attention to security issues since 2018 and the Tree of Life shooting. “It’s a horrible thing that this kind of instruction is needed in our society today,” Rabbi Cytron-Walker told the Times. “But we don’t get to always deal with the reality we want. We have to deal with reality as it exists.”
The rabbi said he first suspected something was amiss about the visitor to his synagogue on Saturday morning when he heard a “click.”
He had let the stranger in to Congregation Beth Israel of Colleyville, in the suburbs of Fort Worth, before Shabbat services that morning. The man didn’t seem nervous, the rabbi said in an interview on Monday. He said he thought the man was just coming in to the synagogue to get warm on an unusually cold day in North Texas, so he made the man some hot tea.
The man was Malik Faisal Akram, and had traveled from England to New York just before New Year’s Day, the authorities said Sunday. A few weeks later, he walked into the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue and began a hostage situation that ended with the congregants’ dramatic escape, gunfire and Akram’s death.
The Texas act was anti-Semitic
The FBI released a statement late Sunday night describing the Colleyville hostage synagogue crisis as a “terrorism-related matter, in which the Jewish community was targeted.”
That was a departure from comments made on Saturday by the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Dallas field office, who said the hostage-taker was focused on an issue “not specifically related to the Jewish community” — a claim that baffled and angered many Jewish leaders, said a Monday piece in The Forward.
In the new statement, the FBI claimed to “never lose sight of the threat extremists pose to the Jewish community and to other religious, racial, and ethnic groups.”
The Saturday attack on Congregation Beth Israel by Malik Faiasal Akram, a British citizen, is being investigated by the Joint Terrorism Task Force.
Rabbi Charlie told The Forward there was no doubt that antisemitic conspiracy theories drove Akram’s decision to hold him and several congregants hostage for 11 hours.
“This was somebody who literally thought that Jews control the world,” Cytron-Walker said. “He thought he could come into a synagogue, and we could get on the phone with the ‘Chief Rabbi of America’ and he would get what he needed.”
“That is classical anti-Semitic delusion,” Bertenthal said.