Jewish communities across the United States once again find themselves on edge in the wake of another attack on worshippers at a synagogue, this time at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, where a man interrupted Saturday’s Shabbat service and held four people hostage for hours.
No hostages were killed and the suspect is dead, according to authorities. But after other high-profile attacks on other synagogues, the incident Saturday serves as the latest reminder for Jewish congregations and organizations to be vigilant, step up security measures and have hard conversations about how to stay safe.
“All of a sudden, we have to become experts in security,” said Rabbi Joshua Stanton, a senior fellow at the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
“I did not become a rabbi to be an expert in security,” he said. “I became a rabbi to teach, to support, to care, to be in the wider community as a source of love for the world. And now, all of a sudden, there is a great deal of fear. … And to have the Jewish community targeted like this casts a (pall) over all of us.”
In an interview Sunday, Rabbi Rick Jacobs described a “roller coaster of emotions” he believed Jews across North America had shared over the previous 24 hours.
Saturday was a day filled with “deep worry and concern that unfortunately our community knows too well,” said Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, which leads a network of hundreds of Reform synagogues, including Congregation Beth Israel.
Saturday night saw “the most intense relief” as the hostages were freed, he said. But people woke up Sunday worried again: “The question was, are we safe enough to go back to our normal activities,” Jacobs said – activities such as gathering in religious schools or holding planned community services to celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr.
“It’s sad that that is the reality, that so much of our Jewish community does not feel safe in many settings,” said Jacobs. “And yet, what are we? We’re a Jewish community that responds to whatever issues or realities that we face.”
“To walk into a synagogue today and to be met with a security guard, or some security procedures, to have to show ID and go through sometimes a metal detector, or a few questions – honestly we feel more secure to go through that kind of experience,” he said.
“This is just what we must do to keep our communities safe.”
The latest high-profile attack on a Jewish congregation
No one was seriously harmed in Colleyville, but the victims of other recent attacks targeting Jewish congregations have not been as fortunate.
Eleven people were killed in 2018 at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh when a gunman made anti-Semitic comments and opened fire on the congregation. One person was killed and three others wounded by a gunman in 2019 at the Chabad of Poway synagogue near San Diego. And while not at a synagogue, three people were killed by two shooters later that same year at a kosher market in Jersey City, New Jersey, in an attack authorities said was fueled in part by anti-Semitism.
In Colleyville, while the suspect – identified by the FBI as 44-year-old British citizen Malik Faisal Akram – took Jewish worshippers hostage, FBI Dallas Special Agent in Charge Matthew DeSarno said in a news conference Saturday authorities believe he was “singularly focused on one issue” that was “not specifically related to the Jewish community.”
Two law enforcement officials told CNN investigators believe the hostage-taker might have been motivated by a desire for the release of a Pakistani serving an 86-year sentence at a Texas facility after being convicted in 2010 of attempted murder and armed assault on US officers in Afghanistan.
In a later statement, the FBI described the hostage situation as a “terrorism-related matter, in which the Jewish community was targeted.
“We never lose sight of the threat extremists pose to the Jewish community and to other religious, racial, and ethnic groups,” the statement said.
The threat to Jewish communities is real, Jewish leaders say, pointing to the recent uptick in anti-Jewish acts.
Jacobs expressed gratitude for law enforcement and their work getting the hostages out safely. But he disagreed with any suggestion the attack was not anti-Semitic.
“They didn’t attack a McDonald’s or a mall,” Jacobs said of the suspect. “They found a congregation, a Reform house of prayer, on a day when we gather for prayer and celebration.”
“I’m sorry, if it happened once in a thousand years, you could say it wasn’t an anti-Semitic,” he said. “But the choice of the synagogue for this hostage-taker, and the litany of things we have been facing as a community – it’s pretty clear.”
Jonathan A. Greenblatt, CEO and national director of the Anti-Defamation League, urged officials in a statement to “investigate the role antisemitism may have played in motivating the suspect.”
In the meantime, synagogues and other Jewish institutions should remain vigilant, Greenblatt said, saying in his statement, “The risks remain high in light of the historic level of antisemitism across the country and the proliferation of anti-Jewish hate online.”
The ADL will reach out to local law enforcement agencies in the coming days, Greenblatt said, “to ensure that steps are being taken to ensure the safety and security of the Jewish community.”
‘Is our community under attack again?’
Security is an everyday concern for Jewish synagogues today, and many have received training and implemented their own protocols to keep their congregations safe.
In a statement Sunday, Congregation of Beth Israel Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker credited his survival with training he and his congregation had received over the years from local police, the FBI, the ADL and the Secure Community Network (SCN), a group that helps Jewish communities across North America develop and put in place security protocols.
“We are alive today because of that education,” Cytron-Walker said.
Brad Orsini, SCN’s senior national security adviser, told CNN the organization has expanded dramatically in recent years after attacks like those in Pittsburgh, Poway, Jersey City and Monsey, New York, where a man attacked Hasidic Jews at a rabbi’s home during a Hanukkah celebration in 2019.
In the wake of an event like the one in Colleyville, Jewish leaders are looking for both advice and reassurance, he said. They want to know whether the event was isolated, whether there could be copycats, and whether they should bring out emergency operations plans and be vigilant.
The answer to that last question, he said, “is absolutely yes.”
“An incident in Colleyville really affects the entire Jewish community nationwide,” he told CNN in an interview Sunday following a webinar to brief hundreds of Jewish community leaders, security representatives and others about what happened in Colleyville. “They think back to Pittsburgh, Poway, Monsey, Jersey City – is our community under attack again?”
In response, synagogues would be reviewing their plans with ushers and greeters, Orsini said, while shuls with less sophisticated plans were playing catch-up. Measures might include ensuring temple administrators have remote access to floor plans that can be easily shared with law enforcement, he said, or surveillance cameras accessible from outside to give first responders a tactical advantage against any threat.
“Most communities right now are really talking about these issues, talking about do they need to increase security,” he said.
Interfaith connection is important, rabbi says
Cities across the country also increased security at synagogues and Jewish Community Centers to ensure their safety. While there were no credible threats, the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, DC, increased visibility around places of worship, a spokesperson for the department told CNN.
The New York Police Department similarly deployed resources to “key Jewish locations” around the city Saturday night, Mayor Eric Adams said on Twitter, and Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson similarly announced that the city’s police department was sending additional patrols to synagogues and other locations as a “precaution.”
Rabbi Steve Leder of the Wilshire Boulevard Temple in Los Angeles told CNN’s Poppy Harlow on Saturday he has been in touch with other rabbis and Jewish leaders throughout the country, underscoring “we all need to continue to remain vigilant.”
“Of course we’re concerned,” he said. “I mean, to be frank, my wife didn’t even want me on CNN with you … but we cannot allow that to prevent us from speaking out against this senseless hatred.”
But security is not just about cameras, metal detectors and training, said Jacobs, who emphasized the importance of interfaith relationships and noted Jews are not the only community of faith that has been targeted. Over the course of the day Saturday, he was receiving messages of love and support from people of all faiths, including Christians and Muslims, who condemned the hostage-taker.
“The truth is, Jewish history has very, very painful episodes of anti-Jewish hate, anti-Semitism,” he said. “And one of the things that feels very unique in 21st-century America is that we hear, feel the deep connection” with members of other faiths.
Ultimately, Jewish communities cannot be “paralyzed by fear,” Jacobs added. “That is to completely give over our faith community to the haters, and that would not even be something we contemplate.”