Editor’s note: Marice Richter is a senior reporter for the Fort Worth Business Press and a founding member of Congregation Beth Israel.
Congregation Beth Israel officially reopens today, welcoming back congregants who have been displaced since the anti-Semitic terror attack on Jan. 15.
A lot has happened since that unusually chilly Saturday morning in January when a stranger arrived at the door of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville and asked Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker if he could come inside to warm up.
The rabbi let the disheveled man inside and offered him a cup of tea.
Within an hour or so, it became clear that the disheveled man was not seeking shelter or solace. He pulled a gun from his backpack and took the rabbi and three other worshipers in the sanctuary hostage.
During an 11-hour standoff, Malik Faisal Akram, a British national, ranted and threatened to kill the hostages unless his demand was met for the release of Aafia Siddiqui, also known as “Lady al Qaeda,” a prisoner at the Carswell Federal Medical Center in Fort Worth serving an 86-year sentence for attempted murder of U.S. soldiers.
Thousands of people listened in real time to the horrifying hostage ordeal, laced with death threats and anti-Semitic rhetoric, on a Facebook Live broadcast that had been initiated to livestream morning services.
The livestream was shut off mid-day and one of the hostages, an elderly man, was released in the early evening.
Four more hours would pass before the hostages, sensing the situation was devolving and negotiations with law enforcement had stalled, began inching their chairs toward an exit door in the sanctuary. At about 9 p.m., the rabbi threw a chair at Akram and he and the two remaining hostages made a daring escape.
FBI Hostage Rescue Team tactical officers entered the building and fatally shot Akram.
Although the hostage situation ended with the best possible outcome, the aftermath has been painful and difficult at times.
Two days after the attack, Rabbi Charlie led an emotional healing service, noting that recovery would be a long, slow slog, achieved one small step at a time.
The attack took an emotional toll on the hostages and some congregation members, who have sought counseling.
The building sustained heavy damage from the FBI’s forced entry to end the crisis.
But the outpouring of support from the local community and well-wishers from across the country and around the world has been incredibly uplifting for our small congregation that was founded 23 years ago.
First United Methodist Church of Colleyville donated space to hold services on Friday evenings and the city of Colleyville donated a community center for Saturday morning worship.
A local business lent us free office space until we could return home.
We also received donations of tile and other materials to repair the damage to the building.
On Thursday, synagogue President Mike Finfer led a media tour of the meticulous repairs that leave no physical reminders of the traumatic ordeal that occurred not so long ago. New carpet, new tile and furniture in the foyer, and a fresh coat of paint in a different color enliven the sanctuary.
And, damage to our magnificent stained glass windows has been repaired.
The works of our own resident artist, Richard Baratz, who has long produced celebrity portraits for the walls of the famous Sardi’s restaurant in New York City, have been re-hung. Baratz’ works now share space with hand-made posters sent to us as well wishes from other synagogues and churches.
One of the most moving tributes came from the Chabad of Poway synagogue in Poway, Calif., where John Timothy Earnest fatally shot one woman and injured three others, including the rabbi, on the final day of Passover in 2019.
Another large poster came from one of our church neighbors, Good Shepherd Catholic Community, and is signed by hundreds of their members.
Besides services, we were able to carry on many of our traditions, including our religious education for our youngsters and our annual Purim celebration with a raucous live musical production for the retelling of the Book of Esther, centering on the triumph of Jews over adversity.
In the last few months, Rabbi Charlie has accepted a new position with a synagogue in Winston-Salem, N.C., and he will be leaving us this summer.
But we are moving closer to hiring an interim rabbi for the next year to help us continue to heal and guide us through the search for our next permanent spiritual leader.
The reopening of our synagogue has been an anticipated event for many of us but probably most of all for Rabbi Charlie.
“It’s good to be back,” Rabbi Charlie said at the news conference, explaining that he has been back at various points in the reconstruction.
“I’ve been able to see the progress,” he said. “Each piece of the puzzle being put in place was a bit of healing and reassurance. I’m looking forward to being able for us to be together in this place to pray and study and ‘do Jewish’ together.”
Jeff Cohen, vice president of the synagogue and one of the hostages, said he is also anticipating the return, although he acknowledges he has yet to fully recover from the trauma.
“I’m looking forward to coming back,” Cohen said. “This will really help us move forward.”
The cup the rabbi offered tea to the assailant in and the chair he threw at the man to hasten the hostages’ escape were recently donated to the Weitzman National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia for a new exhibit on anti-Semitism in America.