In addition to all the agencies working behind the scenes, Michigan’s Jewish community leapt into action on Jan. 15 as word of the crisis spread.
As far back as Abraham and Sarah, Jews have been taught to be a welcoming people. Congregations and those who lead them have long championed the message, opening their doors, literally and figuratively, to their members and the broader community.
“These are open spaces; there’s a strong, deeply rooted notion in Judaism about kindness to strangers and welcoming strangers,” says Howard Lupovitch, associate professor of history and director of the Cohn-Haddow Center for Judaic Studies at Wayne State University in Detroit.
“So, a synagogue and rabbi, as part of their training, they’ve been taught to imbue and to teach and to live this value.”
The Jan. 15 hostage situation at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, comes as a reminder that abiding by this value is not without risks. Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker had graciously invited a man in from the cold and offered him a cup of tea, unaware the visitor would soon take him and three congregants hostage at gunpoint.
In 1966, Rabbi Morris Adler was fatally shot by a young congregant while Adler was conducting services at Congregation Shaarey Zedek (CSZ) in Southfield, in a sanctuary full of congregants. “Because of that tragedy that took place on the Shaarey Zedek bimah, there’s not a Shabbat that goes by that I’m not mindful of the fact that we are at risk,” says CSZ’s Rabbi Aaron Starr. Security, he says, has been on members’ minds for more than 50 years now.
Starr is a longtime friend of Cytron-Walker, who grew up in Lansing. They lived in the same dorm at University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and both participated in NFTY Michigan, a Reform Jewish youth group.
Starr also is a friend of Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, a New York-based rabbi who, according to reports, became part of the story. The hostage-taker demanded Cytron-Walker contact her that Saturday to try and secure the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist serving 86 years in jail for attacking American troops in Afghanistan.
“I happen to know both of these [rabbis], but it’s not about me, it’s about them and their true heroism and commitment to saving Jewish lives,” Starr says. “And I think all of us are trying to do that, whether it’s compassion for our friends and family, or standing up for what’s right, or literally saving someone’s life, if that’s what we’re called upon to do.”
He pointed to the courage of rabbis all over the world in speaking truth to power, bringing to light issues of ethics and morality, and trying to address questions of justice in a world rife with injustice.
“A rabbi, by his or her nature, has to be courageous in ways large and small,” Starr says. “Please God, we won’t have to be put in the situation of defending our community physically the way Rabbi Cytron-Walker did, but it takes a lot of courage to be a rabbi.”
Devorah Titunik, a longtime member of Congregation Beth Israel who grew up in Ann Arbor, was watching the live-streamed Jan. 15 Shabbat service when she heard ranting and shouting. She was shocked to learn her rabbi and three congregants were being held hostage.
“During the ordeal, I thought, if I was ever in such a situation, he would be the person I would want with me because he’s such a calming presence,” she tells the JN. “After learning the details since they escaped, I feel certain that he is the reason they all survived.”
The recent incident hit close to home not only because of Cytron-Walker’s local ties — his Michigan family includes his mother, brother, sister and extended family — but also because a terrorist disrupted a sacred community on a sacred day in a sacred space, Starr says. He says he hopes people are moved to do something more in their Jewish journey as a result of recent events and that each Shabbat service will bring more people in attendance, whether physically or online.
“Our response to antisemitism has not changed,” Starr explains. “The best response to antisemitism is to do our utmost to protect Jewish lives, including supporting the State of Israel, and also to live meaningful, committed Jewish lives in which we find joy, pride and blessing in our Judaism.”
In addition to all the agencies working behind the scenes, Michigan’s Jewish community leapt into action on Jan. 15 as word of the crisis spread. “The Talmud tells us every Jew is responsible for one another,” Starr says. “And the Torah tells us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. I think if you merge those two ideas, you have the community that we have, that truly cares and supports each other when we need it most.”
Local rabbis and Jewish agency leaders connected with Cytron-Walker’s Michigan family mobilized quickly to offer them support as the situation unfolded.
Hearing the news in Texas, Rabbi Mark Miller of Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Township immediately reached out to Cytron-Walker’s sister, a congregant. He met her brother when Miller was a rabbi in Houston.
“From the start, my goal was just to be supportive in whatever way worked for her,” Miller says. “… It is paralyzing to simply wait in fear.”
Though Miller usually does not use email or social media on Shabbat, yet he put out a post to inform the Beth El community and to ask for prayers while also protecting the identity of the rabbi’s family members. Additionally, he sent a note to the Temple’s board of trustees and notified them that he would only send out another notice once the situation was resolved to honor the family’s privacy.
“We are all so thankful for the overwhelming support we’ve received from the entire community,” says Cytron-Walker’s Michigan family in a statement. “We hope that people will use this opportunity to follow Rabbi Charlie’s lead by combating anger and hate with kindness, love and decency.”
Beth El’s Miller said the time following the crisis would be time for outreach and reflection, which would not only include gratitude that the four hostages escaped physically unharmed, but also “a serious discussion about the nature of antisemitism and our security at Temple.”
Though Jewish organizations are built on being inclusive and welcoming, they must also be secure for those who use them. Technology certainly plays a role, but ultimately training, policies, procedures and protocols are the key to keeping everyone safe so they can have a meaningful communal experience.
“Going to synagogue shouldn’t take an act of courage,” says Gary Sikorski, director of community-wide security for the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Detroit. “It should literally be a sanctuary, and so we have to find that balance between security and being welcoming and open. It’s a tough balance to find sometimes.”
Sikorski emphasizes that security is “everybody’s business,” meaning that if community members see something unusual, they should report it, and also that people should make sure, when shopping for a school, daycare or synagogue, that they consider the security in place. At the same time, with that awareness, life at Jewish institutions must keep thriving.
“I think we have to carry on as normal as possible,” he says.
Primarily through Federation efforts, the community has invested significant funds to improve target hardening and has put technology in place — with the goal of making sure every synagogue has the ability to lock its doors and vet visitors or guests as they come in. But the human element is critical as well, he says. “Having trained staff, especially clergy as well as congregants, is really an important part of an all-hazards response plan,” Sikorski says. “This [Texas] incident clearly illustrates the importance of training, planning and preparation.”
Federation’s security program started in 2006 and, in 2008, increased its reach with security in place at Jewish agencies and on the Eugene and Marcia Applebaum Jewish Community Campus in West Bloomfield as well as the A. Alfred Taubman campus in Oak Park. In 2013, Federation started a school security program and focused on agencies serving children.
In recent years, Federation has additionally helped agencies apply for National Department of Homeland Security grants and offered grant-matching programs to help synagogues improve their security. And when it comes to responding to incidents like the one recently in Texas, Detroit’s community also relies on close relationships with local, state and federal law enforcement, Sikorski says.
“We have tried to position ourselves and the Jewish community in Detroit at an even, consistent level of security awareness,” he explains. That means when there’s a quieter period, people may wonder why these measures are in place, but when there’s a spike, they’re glad it’s there.
“Incidents like [those at synagogues in Texas, Pittsburgh and Poway, California] tend to increase the community’s awareness,” he says. “On any given Shabbat, something could happen, and we need to be prepared for that.”
Over the years, Federation, local police departments and other community organizations have offered active assailant response training, with special training sessions taking place around the High Holidays. Sikorski says he expects to see an increase in requests for that kind of training, which often extends to congregation members as well as staff at synagogues and also at schools.
“There’s been a lot of community training and we expect this will spur more,” Sikorski says.
From the standpoint of understanding incidents in a broader context, there’s been a move toward looking at incidents, such as what happened in Texas, collectively — instead of as stand-alone, isolated occurrences. That means a push to keep a barometer on antisemitic incidents in a community and consider them as data points reflective of a sentiment in a community or an area, Sikorski explains.
Recognizing antisemitic incidents and not letting them be minimized is a big part of that process, says Carolyn Normandin, Michigan regional Anti-Defamation League director. She says that while the FBI attributed the standoff to terrorism, an FBI agent in Dallas shortly after the standoff stated that the hostage-taker was “singularly focused on one issue” that was not related to the Jewish community.
“This was really not helpful,” she says. “The FBI quickly rectified the agent’s statements, but, unfortunately, people who want to downplay antisemitism in this country seized on the agent’s comments, and that is troubling.”
Antisemitism has been going up steadily in Michigan for several years, she says, pointing to ADL statistics that show an increase of 240% in the state in the last five years.
“This rise in antisemitism didn’t happen yesterday or the day before,” she says. “This particular incident [in Texas] is a really painful reminder that synagogues in America continue to be at risk, and there’s no doubt, given what we know so far, that the synagogue was targeted.”
In addition to the fact it happened at a synagogue, the incident in Texas, also reflects a dimension of antisemitism related to the idea of a Jewish conspiracy and the myth of Jewish power. It suggests Jews have a disproportionate amount of influence over government and also that Jews “control the world” in ways that give them the ability to get immediate results.
“He believes in the notion that Jews are powerful,” WSU’s Lupovitch says of the Texas hostage-taker. “He believes in the idea that Jews can wield influence. He went to a synagogue and asked a rabbi to call another rabbi. This way of buying into Jewish power and privilege is in itself an antisemitic trope.”
Detroit Jewish communal organizations came together Jan. 15 to address the Texas hostage situation, ADL’s Normandin says. “On a sleepy Saturday in January … we start activating phone trees and making sure people we know do work in this area start engaging.”
That meant connecting Cytron-Walker’s local family with resources and also making sure local, state and federal law enforcement had extra patrols at several weekend Jewish community events “out of an abundance of caution,” she says.
And while the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force and others continue the investigation, so, too, community organizations will continue to improve their collaboration and educate others about antisemitism.
“I think it’s really important for Jewish community leaders and Jewish citizens to help everyone they know be allies in this horrible trend of the rise of antisemitism,” Normandin says. “We must continue to call this out and seek solutions for this rise in hatred, specifically against us as Jews.”
That includes recognizing the role individuals can play when friends, family or others make antisemitic comments. It’s tough to tell people that what they’re saying is offensive, she says, but calling it out is crucial.
“Antisemitism is way underreported,” she says. “We have to report incidents so we have good data. We have to call people out even when it’s uncomfortable for us.”
JCRC/AJC Receives Interfaith Support
By Stacy Gittleman
Rabbi Asher Lopatin, executive director of Detroit’s Jewish Community Relations Council/American Jewish Congress (JCRC/AJC), said in the days following the Jan. 15 terror attack, there was a great outpouring of statements of support by community leaders and leaders of other faith groups, including Christians, Muslims and Hindus — all condemning the terror attack.
Many referred to the incident as an antisemitic incident, and several lauded Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker for his leadership and bravery.
They also expressed gratitude that the hostages survived physically unharmed.
Lopatin said the terror attack occurring on the Shabbat of Martin Luther King Jr. weekend made it even more jarring. Yet, he said he could feel the love and support of the wider community as he spent the weekend participating in events to mark the holiday.
He went to synagogue Sunday morning and then on to an interfaith church service with the Coalition for Black and Jewish Unity at Greater New Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist Church in Detroit.
The service was led by Rev. Kenneth Flowers with participation from local Jewish clergy. Lopatin said he felt the embrace and support of Detroit’s Black community.
“Rev. Flowers spoke about how concerned he had been and praised the Lord for the release of the hostages,” Lopatin said. “The Jewish community is strong … but we do need that love and embrace.”
You Can Fight Antisemitism
Anti-Defamation League suggestions:
• Speak out against antisemitic jokes and slurs. Silence can send the message that such humor and derogatory remarks are acceptable.
• Donate money to organizations that fight antisemitism.
• If you encounter an antisemitic website, contact the Anti-Defamation League (adl.org) and/or the site’s host carrier to complain and request that the site be taken down.
• Report to the college administration and/or ADL, any incidents of antisemitism that violate campus diversity or harassment codes.
• Lobby public officials to take actions and make statements against antisemitism.
Contributing Writer Stacy Gittleman added to this story. Contributing Editor Keri Guten Cohen coordinated this report.