Jewish community strives for balance after Texas hostage event

Rabbi Cytron-Walker, of Congregation Beth Israel, received training similar to the security preparations that Washington Hebrew Congregation received.

The first thought Rabbi Eliana Fischel had when she heard about the hostage situation in Colleyville, Texas, was, “This is my worst nightmare.”

Although the 10-hour standoff at Congregation Beth Israel ended with all four hostages, including Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, alive, the murder of 11 worshipers at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and other recent killings keep rabbis up at night.

When she heard that the hostages escaped safely, Fischel, associate rabbi at Washington Hebrew Congregation, said one of the things that was comforting was that Cytron-Walker’s security training worked. In fact, the training was similar to the security preparations that Washington Hebrew Congregation received.

Rockville Police Chief Victor Brito said he has directed his officers to contact synagogues in the city to offer them security training and be more visible in areas where synagogues are.

One kind of training is CRASE — also known as Civilian Response to Active Shooter Events — which provides strategies, guidance and plans for surviving an active shooter event.

Brito said events like Colleyville and Tree of Life can happen anywhere.
“It’s always important for us to be proactive and to reach out to our partners — in particular faith based communities — to provide that support and understanding that we’re here to help,” Brito said.

Steven VanGrack, former mayor of Rockville and a congregant of the Chabad Israeli Center of Rockville, said Brito and the department’s outreach after the incident in Texas has been “overwhelming.”

“It’s just very heartwarming to see the city of Rockville, its chief and its leaders respond in such a positive way,” VanGrack said.

Secure Community Networks, the Jewish community organization that provided training for Cytron-Walker, also trains organizations in the Washington area, said Gil Preuss, CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.

“The idea that we need to have security and police officers standing in front of synagogues and places of worship, on its own, is an astounding idea,” Preuss said. “But now we know that that is a part of American Jewish life. And we need to make sure that, when we go to synagogue and when we’re in the building, that we all feel safe and secure.”

Rabbi Marc Israel, of Tikvat Israel Congregation in Rockville, said his synagogue had made a few security adjustments a week before the hostage situation in Texas. The congregation is looking to make even more enhancements in the aftermath.

“I still believe that America and Montgomery County are safe places for Jews,” Israel said. “But I certainly don’t have the same confidence and belief that I had five years ago.”

Israel first met Cytron-Walker in their youth. Israel was an adviser to the NFTY youth group in Ann Arbor, Mich., when Cytron-Walker was a high school student. They met at regional events, and Cytron-Walker became the regional president of NFTY when Israel was working in the national office.

Israel said he still holds out hope that people can change the current climate of hatred and violence.

“I think the most important thing every American can do right now is to try and lower the temperature of our political discourse,” Israel said. “I think with the situation that we currently are in, it makes people not just see themselves as rivaling factions, but more and more as enemies.”

Rabbi Gil Steinlauf, of Kol Shalom in Rockville, said situations like Colleyville exacerbate the fears a lot of people already have.

Steinlauf, too, imagined the hostage taking happening in his synagogue. At the same time, he said that’s not the whole story.

“Equally important, if not more important, is it’s a story of bravery,” Steinlauf said. “It’s a story of heroism. It’s a story of the FBI doing their job. It’s a story of the interfaith community in Texas coming together to show incredible support and love for the Jewish community.”

In the interest of staying safe, he said, “we should not give in to our anxiety and put our whole Jewish life on hold.” Jews should continue going to their synagogues and living their lives.

“This is what they do in Israel,” Steinlauf said. “The Israelis are our teachers. They’ve had to live with terrorism far longer than we have. And they live their lives. They don’t give up.”

Many area synagogues are not holding in-person services due to surging COVID-19 cases. But Washington Hebrew Congregation welcomed congregants and visitors to their MLK day of service on Jan. 17 — two days after the events in Texas.

“It was really amazing to walk back into our temple and our holy space to do good work that helps to heal the world…particularly in MLK’s honor,” Fischel said.

Fischel added that returning to her synagogue was a lot like a homecoming. A lot of congregants hadn’t seen each other in a long time due to the pandemic, and were simply happy to see each other despite the scary events that transpired in the Jewish community just days before.

“I think that says something about the Jewish people, our strengths and our resilience,” Fischel said. “We know this happens, we get scared, we tune into our TVs for 24 hours and then we continue to come back to our synagogues.”

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