Director, Kaufman Interfaith Institute, GVSU
Kindness, terror, and remembrance
An act of kindness led to an act of terror.
On an unusually cold day Colleyville, Texas, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker saw a stranger outside the door of Congregation Beth Israel. It was the morning prior to the Shabbat services and the rabbi’s faith had taught him to be kind to strangers, so he let him in to get warm and made him some hot tea. Not many attended the service in person because of the COVID challenge, but many were watching on livestream. During the prayer as the rabbi’s back was turned, he heard a click and realized that it was from a gun. The act of kindness now led to an 11-hour hostage event.
As the siege continued the hostage-taker had a phone conversation from his brother in England who urged him to end the attack and return to his family and children. He refused and made it clear that he was ready to die along with the hostages he had taken. He said that he liked the rabbi and even acknowledged the kindness that had been shown to him prior to the service. Even so, his hatred of Jews prevailed. In that call, heard and recorded over livestream, he said, “Don’t cry on the (expletive) phone with me. … There are hostages in the synagogue who are going to die.”
The tension continued to rise, but Rabbi Cytron-Walker remained calm. In a later interview on CBS he was asked how could he remain calm in the presence of someone willing to kill you and die in the process. He responded that it had been a part of his training as a clergy person to always stay calm with someone in the hospital or in very difficult personal situations. Because of the increasing attacks on Jewish places of worship, he had also been trained by law enforcement and by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) on how to handle such situations.
Fortunately, he was also very active with other faith groups in the area. In an article from the Religion News Service, the rabbi was described as “an interfaith champion with deep-rooted friendships not only among Christians but Muslims, too.” During the siege a group of Christian pastors, rabbis, Muslim imams and other religious leaders from the area met at a local Catholic community facility to assist the FBI team in the negotiations with the hostage-taker. Rev. Bob Roberts Jr. a pastor of nearby evangelical megachurch, Northwood Church, who has known Rabbi Cytron-Walker for 15 years, said of him, “There’s probably no one who can handle it better than him because he gets a bigger picture than just his own tribe. That’s how he lived his life in the public square — committed to his own faith but respectful of other people’s faiths.”
As the standoff went into the night, the hostage-taker became more agitated, and the rabbi realized from his training that this is the most dangerous stage. At a critical point he told the others to prepare to run to the nearby exit. He then threw a chair at the terrorist and they all ran to safety. At that point the FBI SWAT team rushed the synagogue and killed the hostage-taker.
While members of the Jewish community comprise less than 3% of the U.S. population, nearly 60% of the religion-based hate crimes are committed against them. Whatever one’s religion, we must all care about the common good and be sensitive to the threats against this group.
An important part of this caring is to never forget what can happen in a country that lets its leadership blame a group for all that is wrong in the country. The Holocaust was such a development, from which there are very few survivors still living. One way to keep the story alive is to watch a film that will be offered this week by the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Muskegon. January 27 is the date in 1945 the Auschwitz concentration camp was liberated. It is now recognized around the world as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. On that day the Center will bring the film “Violins of Hope” via Zoom to the West Michigan community.
It is the story of violins recovered from the Holocaust, repaired, and now being used to tell the story. Professional musicians use these violins in concerts around the world. While actual survivors are few, the violins when played now serve as continuing survivors of the Holocaust keeping current the message of “Never Forget.”
Register for more information, a brief intro to the film, and the link to watch the film on January 26 or 27 as well as receive information about a Zoom discussion of the film at 7:45 p.m. on Thursday the 27th. Please join us..