Colleyville synagogue recalls hostage crisis, commits to battling anti-Semitism

Hostage scene, January 2022: Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville. (AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

A lot has changed at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville since a bedraggled man conned his way into my synagogue under the pretense of being homeless and seeking to warm up on the frigid morning of Jan 15, 2022.

But Malik Faisal Akram was not who he professed to be. Not long after the morning services began, Akram pulled a gun and took hostage Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and the three congregants who braved the winter cold to worship in person that morning.

During a harrowing 11-hour standoff, the unhinged 44-year-old British national made clear why he was there. His anti-Semitic rants, threats and obscenities were broadcast across the world through virtual communication platforms that were left running for part of the day.

Akram’s intent was to force his hostages to use their influence to free a Pakastani woman serving an 86-year sentence at the Carswell federal prison in Fort Worth for attempting to kill U.S. soldiers.

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“He believed everything he ever heard about Jews,” Jeff Cohen, one of the hostages and now president of Congregation Beth Israel, reminded all of us assembled this past Friday for a special evening service to mark the first anniversary of the attack. “Jews control everything, the media, the government, the banks.”

Believing that to be true, because he heard it over and over again, Jeff said, why would he turn anywhere else to carry out his plan?

But Friday’s event did not focus on the horrors of that day or the courageous escape of the rabbi and two hostages, who managed to run out of the building after the rabbi threw a chair at the gunman. (An elderly hostage had been released earlier in the day.) Akram was shot to death by law enforcement officers after the hostages escaped.

Instead, it was about again expressing gratitude to those who lifted us up that day and for months afterwards, taking stock of where we are and reaffirming an even stronger commitment to combating anti-Semitism.

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So where are we now?

“I’m often asked that question,” Cohen stated in his keynote address to members and invited guests of law enforcement officers, first responders and local clergy who took us in and gave us space to worship and meet while our damaged synagogue underwent restoration.

“Our community is healing but it is a long process,” he said.

We have plenty to be thankful for. In the aftermath of the attack, we were showered with well-wishes, including gifts, money, food and homemade posters, cards and works of art, all expressing their support for us.

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The building no longer bears the physical scars of the attack.

And although much has returned to normal, life at Congregation Beth Israel may never be quite the same again.

We have a heavy metal gate across the entrance to our building, which remains closed and locked most of the time. When the gate is open for services or activities, there is usually an armed law enforcement officer – or two – standing guard. There are rules for non-member attendance and sign-up requirements for major gatherings, including members.

Many of us have taken active-shooter training and at every service someone reads what we call the “seatbelt announcement,” identifying the emergency exits and location of first aid equipment.

It is unfortunate that we must take so many precautions. As Jews, our values command us to provide aid and comfort to strangers. Extending a helping hand is what Rabbi Charlie, as he is known to us, was doing that morning a year ago when he unknowingly opened the door to danger.

Rabbi Charlie departed last summer to accept a position as rabbi at a synagogue in North Carolina. He has also has become a leading national advocate in the fight against anti-Semitism and all types of bigotry.

Sadly, incidents of anti-Semitism are increasing across the country, according to the latest update from Anti-Defamation League Center for Extremism.

In 2021, the organization recorded 2,717 anti-Semitic incidents, a 34 percent increase from the 2,026 incidents recorded in 2020. That was the highest number on record since the ADL began tracking incidents in 1979.

The ADL began tracking those incidents in the wake of a horrifying event that occurred in my hometown of Skokie, Ill., and in which my father was one of the heroes.

My parents moved to a post-World War II boomtown neighborhood in this community with a large and growing Jewish population. It provided the comfort of the close-knit neighborhood of immigrant Jews in Chicago, where my mother grew up and which was especially important to her. For most of his upbringing, my father’s family lived in a more mixed neighborhood.

Growing up during the Great Depression and World War II, incidents of anti-Semitism and exclusionary policies against Jews were common. By moving to Skokie in the late 1950s, they believed they could shield my two sisters and me from all that.

But in 1977, a group of neo-Nazis led by Frank Collins decided to march in Skokie because about half of the village’s residents were Jewish and a significant number of them were Holocaust survivors.

At that time, my father, the late Fred Richter, was president of the Northwest Suburban Synagogue Council, a consortium of synagogues in the northern Chicago suburbs, and mobilized the effort to prevent the march, bringing together elected officials, synagogue leaders, community groups and top constitutional attorneys.

As journalism major in college, I recognized that this was a First Amendment issue. My father was undeterred in believing this was a winnable battle based on the unimaginable psychological trauma the sight of Nazi swastikas in their new hometown would cause Holocaust survivors who had been subjected to the worst atrocities in history by the Nazis.

A protracted court battle, which eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, ended with a ruling that the neo-Nazis had the free speech right to march in Skokie.

But it turned out to be a pyrrhic victory because the march never took place in Skokie. Ceding to pressure and widespread negative publicity, the neo-Nazi group conducted two marches in Chicago, both cut short by police due to hostility of counter-protestors.

Now, more than 40 years later, it is distressing that progress at stamping out hate is increasing rather than declining.

But as Jeff Cohen stated and my father said so many years ago, we must remain vigilant against hate. Standing together makes us stronger.

Marice Richter is a senior reporter for the Fort Worth Business Press and a founding member of Congregation Beth Israel.