- Lexi Schwartz and Penelope Kraus
Hostage Crisis in Colleyville, Texas
A sanctuary is a place to feel protected and an oasis from the hardships that occur in life. But what if that space no longer felt safe? On January 15, 2022, members of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas experienced this feeling. Rabbi Charlie Cryton-Walker and three others were held hostage inside the synagogue.
Malik Faisal Akram, the culprit, arrived at JFK Airport in late December. From then, he stayed in homeless shelters but did not create relationships with others. He was distant and discrete during the time he spent there. When he stepped foot in the synagogue, Rabbi Cryton-Walker welcomed Akram in with open arms and offered him tea. The suspect, a stranger to the Rabbi and the Vice President, Jeffery Cohen, of the synagogue, looked calm and friendly. A live stream of the service was beginning.
The services started at 10 a.m. and were live-streamed to congregants who did not feel comfortable attending in-person services due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At some point during the morning, the Rabbi faced Jerusalem, which is a ritual during services that brings you closer to the Holy Land. As this was going on, Jeffery Cohen heard a clicking noise. He said it was an “unmistakable sound of an automatic slide engaging a round”, meaning a gun was about to fire. The sound came from Malik Akram. He began to yell commands at the people and Cohen called 911. This was all recorded and live-streamed to the entirety of the members of the synagogue.
The police received the call at 10:41 a.m., and Akram took Rabbi Cryton-Walker and three others hostage. People on the live stream picked up some of Akram’s words, such as, “I’m gunned up. I’m ammo-ed up”, and “...I don't want you to cry. Listen! I'm going to release these four guys ... but then I'm going to go in the yard, yeah? ... And they're going to take me, alright? I'm going to die at the end of this, alright? Are you listening? I am going to die! OK? So, don't cry over me." Malik Akram said he was not “a criminal. He felt that “Jews control the world. Jews control the media. Jews control the banks,” and if he were to have control over the Rabbi of the Synagogue in Colleyville, he could free his friend from a nearby prison, which is what he wanted.
When Akram was shouting out orders for the congregants to obey, Jeffery Cohen did not listen to them. He always stayed in line with exits and did not move to the back of the room as instructed. He also moved objects in front of him to avoid bullets. Surprisingly, Malik offered everyone the chance to call their loved ones, further proving his point that he was not a criminal and he did not have the intention of hurting anyone.
The four hostages were released around 5 p.m., and fortunately, no hostages were physically harmed. However, they were threatened the whole time. They were able to stay calm during this stressful time and made their way closer to the door. They continued to disobey Akram occasionally and move into a safer position while waiting for the opportunity to escape.
Malik Akram was drinking water and in a position in which his gun looked somewhat out of reach. This was the sign the congregants were waiting for. As they were down on their knees, Rabbi Cytron-Walker yelled “run” to the other hostages. With some help from other distractions along with the water Akram was drinking, they were able to leave unscathed.
Their training and instruction from the Secure Community Network made it possible for the hostages to escape, and it may very well have saved their lives. As the group of hostages fled the scene as fast as possible, Akram eventually made his way outside where the hostage rescue team shot and killed him.
In an interview with Rabbi Shira Milgrom of Kol Ami in White Plains, New York, she shared her perspective on the event in Texas and what precautions were being taken in her synagogue. She mentioned that in Kol Ami, the doors are always locked and guards are on duty whenever people are present in or around the building. “Even when no one is in the building, cameras permit the staff to monitor the building and grounds 24/7”. Rabbi Shira also spoke on the fact that the White Plains Police Department has active communication with the synagogue during services or when people are on the premises.
Rabbi Shira expressed her nail-biting reaction regarding the event. She hoped that “everyone would be safe” and was “worried for them, of course”. She shared she felt a great deal of relief when the event was over. Rabbi Shira was also asked if this situation in Texas would impact safety protocols at Kol Ami and if it would change the practices of Jewish houses of worship around the world. She responded that it is “newer for us in the United States to think about these things”, and “around the world, this isn’t a new feeling”. This is not the first incident with Jews and acts of terror around the world, but Rabbi Shira believes that “we aren’t alone in this”. She mentions “it’s sad to say, but we aren’t the only ones” who deal with attacks and discrimination.
Although Rabbi Shira believes that such attacks are uncommon within many communities, the threat they pose still troubles her. She believes that some form of change needs to occur because “people have to know they’re safe”. She believes that what is religiously natural to the Jewish population like welcoming a stranger into a sacred space may need to be stopped for the time being. Straying from this tradition will have to be an effort as a whole Jewish community, as that is the only way to make it effective.
Rabbi Keil, from Young Israel of Pelham Parkway Jewish Center an orthodox synagogue in the Bronx, shared similar views with Rabbi Shira Milgrom initially. But, as the interview went on, his views began to diverge.
Rabbi Keil spoke on the security precautions his synagogue takes. These are very similar to Kol Ami’s because they both have the presence of police and cameras. As the interview went on, surprisingly, he did not seem greatly affected by this event. He even expressed that it “should not faze us.” Rabbi Keil believes that “this event should not change our protocols if we are comfortable with them,” meaning that as long as a synagogue has not been attacked or harmed in any way in the past, they are doing something right.
Both Rabbis seem to agree that this event is rare and different forms of attacks are likely in places other than shul. However, Rabbi Keil expressed this more passionately. He shared it is “more than 100 times more likely to die walking to synagogue than a terrorist attack at the synagogue.” He feels the event should have an influence on our lives, but it doesn’t happen that often for us to begin worrying about our safety. Rabbi Keil thinks that people who change their protocols may not have to do so. He spoke in the interview about the fact that “people tend to react to scary things in an emotional way.”
While this was a scary and eye-opening event for many, Rabbis from various synagogues did not show much worry. So, if high-status individuals in the Jewish community can remain calm during such a daunting time, then congregants should feel some measure of comfort. Indeed, negative situations around the world should not affect the ways in which people live their own lives. Bad things happen, and sadly, that is the reality of life.