Lessons from the hostage crisis at a Texas synagogue
David M. Shribman
He lifted up his eyes and looked, and, behold, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the entrance of the tent, and bowed down to the ground… Let a little d water, please get fetched, and wash your feet, and rest under the tree. And I will fetch a piece of bread, and I will comfort your hearts; and after that you will pass; for that is why you have come to your servant. And they said, Do so, as you have said.
He invited her in and made her a cup of tea.
Of all the remarkable elements of last week’s hostage crisis at a Texas synagogue – the live broadcast of the incident during an online Sabbath service, the 11 hours of negotiations, the cold reserve of those who are imprisoned in what is ironically called a “sanctuary”, the rush to the door for an escape offered by the chaos following the throwing of a chair – this is the most amazing:
The hostage crisis began when Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker invited the shooter to Congregation Beth Israel of Colleyville in suburban Fort Worth.
He thought Malik Faisal Akram wanted shelter and needed a hot cup of tea.
A quarter of a century ago, another rabbi faced a similar situation. Rabbi Ken Kanter of the Mizpah congregation in Chattanooga let a teenager into his synagogue; Joseph Harper had come the day before for water, so he was a familiar figure, clearly looking for help. The visitor handcuffed the rabbi, blindfolded him, stole his wallet and keys, put him in the trunk of his 1987 Volvo, drove around for an hour, and finally released him.
“People come to the door all the time, asking for food, water or money,” Rabbi Kanter said.
But here’s what will surprise you: It turns out that Rabbi Kanter, who was director of the rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, taught Rabbi Cytron-Walker at his senior seminar on rabbinical practices.
What is more important than the most unlikely of all coincidences is that the two rabbis – the one held hostage in his own shrine, the one abducted and thrown into the trunk of his own car – acted with the kindness that is at the heart not only of Judaism but also of all religions.
“It relates to a sense of clergy of all faiths trying to serve the community, whether because of poverty or hunger,” Rabbi Kanter told me.
It is clear that Rabbi Cytron-Walker – a controversial figure in his own congregation, where a search committee for his replacement was scheduled two days before the hostage crisis took place – was a good student, to his detriment for this heartbreaking Sabbath but perhaps a lesson for all of us.
Not that you should let a gunman into your home or place of worship. Instead, it is that open doors, abroad and – here is the lesson for our politicians, and for us – to those whose backgrounds, appearances, perspectives, opinions differ from ours, can be dangerous. But also that open doors are essential for us to preserve and value our humanity.
And so Rabbi Kanter was not at all surprised to discover that history was repeating itself with the young man he was sitting in front of in a seminar room at the Cincinnati seminary.
“It was completely characteristic of him,” said Rabbi Kanter, who, like Zelig, also celebrated my daughter’s wedding. “That’s the kind of career he’s had as a student and that’s his personal style, of warmth and friendliness, as a practicing rabbi. He’s a sweet, kind, caring guy. The fact that her first thought is to greet her and offer her a cup of tea is very Charlie.
A longtime associate of the Texas rabbi was also not stunned when he learned what his friend had done.
“It’s not at all surprising that Charlie invited him,” said Rabbi Daniel Fellman of Temple Sinai in Pittsburgh, who has known Rabbi Cytron-Walker for many years and whose wife was in a group. young Jews with him in Lansing, Michigan. That’s who Charlie is – and that’s what we all want to be as rabbis. The sad reality of living in America in 2022 is that these kind gestures can now lead to hardship.
“Just because something terrible happened to Charlie doesn’t mean I’m going to do the same,” he continued. “That’s who we are as humans at our best.”
It’s hard to see humans at their best after seeing humans at their worst. And yet the two rabbis are not the only clergy who, with tragic results, have invited the stranger.
Our calling,” Reverend Clemente Pinckney of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC once said, “is not just within the walls of the congregation, but…the life and community in which our congregation resides.
And so his expansive view of “community” led to Dylann Roof’s attendance at a Bible study session in June 2015, only to see the visitor draw a gun and proclaim that black people were “taking over the country.” Then he shot and killed nine people.
“Blinded by hatred, the alleged killer could not see the grace surrounding Reverend Pinckney and this Bible study group – the light of love that shone as they opened the doors of the church and invited a stranger to join their prayer circle,” President Barack said. Obama said at Reverend Pinckney’s funeral. Then he sang, a capella, “Amazing Grace”. He could have continued until the second stanza, which opens like this:
It’s grace that taught my heart to fear
And thanks to my eased fears
Shortly after his escape from his own sanctuary, Rabbi Cytron-Walker noted that a synagogue is called a little knesset, a gathering house. In his faith, and surely in yours, the doormat is at the door.
“Inviting – welcoming – the stranger is an essential part of Christianity,” said Bishop David Zubic of Pittsburgh. “What happened in Texas is an example of what plagues our society today and describes how kindness, care and concern often collide with hate, anger and prejudice.”
The Beth Israel episode had a happy resolution, ending with hope that the doors of country and politics will open. The reason: to borrow the title of a 1953 play by Robert Anderson, for tea and sympathy.
David M. Shribman is the former editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @ShribmanPG