I didn’t know about the hostage seizure at the Colleyville, Texas, synagogue until Saturday late afternoon, hours after it started. The news that an attacker had seized the rabbi and three congregants—as part of a plan to free a woman serving an 86-year sentence in a Texas prison for attacking U.S. military officers in Afghanistan—brought back memories of past attacks on Jewish houses of worship, including the Chabad House in Mumbai, India, in 2008 (six dead); the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh (11 dead); Passover 2019 in Poway, California (one dead); and Hanukkah 2019 in Monsey, New York (one dead). This time, the crisis ended with a SWAT attack that killed the attacker before he could harm any of his four hostages at Congregation Beth Israel (CBI).
The CBI terrorism has special resonance because I grew up in Texas as part of a family that has been in Texas since just after the Civil War. While I left Texas and have been living in the Northeast for more than 40 years, I still embrace an identity as a Texas Jew. My great-great-grandfather, Chayim Schwarz, was the first ordained rabbi in the state, when he moved there from Germany in 1873. My parents were married there at Temple Emanuel in McAllen, where I drop by for services when I’m in the Rio Grande Valley for my high school reunion.
At times like these, differences between Texas and New York or liberal or conservative or Zionist or secular or religious don’t matter. While I’ve read at least one article knocking CBI Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker’s positions in Jewish politics, that has absolutely no meaning for me. An attack on one Jew is an attack on all of us; distinctions between religious practices and political leanings only deepen energy-sapping divisions. Terrorists don’t distinguish between Reform, Conservative, or Orthodox, and neither should we make fine distinctions in taking action in solidarity with Jews in danger. For evidence of the negative impact, remember that enmity among Jews contributed to the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70 CE (Common Era, otherwise AD). In the words supposedly spoken by Benjamin Franklin at the time of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, “We must all hang together, or . . . we shall all hang separately.”
The CBI attack and the successful outcome will long be studied. Were the security procedures sufficient, and how did the law enforcement agencies respond? Where did U.S. border controls break down to enable a foreign national with a criminal record to enter the country? What planning and financing supported the attack?
My own views on responses reflect my experiences with Jewish sites in Israel and elsewhere, as well as what I’ve seen from attacks on places of worship in Texas. My action bias is going to show here, no doubt reflecting my youth spent absorbing stories of the Alamo, the War for Texas Independence, and the rough life on the frontier—the Texas history taught in schools when I was growing up in Mission, Texas, in the 1960s and 1970s. Such episodes inspired the same sort of fervor, I imagine, as when Hebrew schools relate stories of Masada, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, and the miracle of the Six-Day War of 1967.
I’ve seen the armed security forces in Israel, and they’re not for show. In Amsterdam, a security officer questioned me before I could attend services at the Portuguese Synagogue. In the 1980s, I passed machine gun-toting guards outside the Great Synagogue of Florence. U.S. synagogues now show far more security during the High Holidays. That includes my synagogue, Chabad of Bedford, N.Y.; Chabad is an Orthodox movement based in Brooklyn also called Chabad-Lubavitch. One of the men held hostage at CBI has already called for more active shooter training.
My own thinking is aligned with that, and I’m fine with the notion of armed, properly trained synagogue members. Concealed carry may be impractical, illegal, or wildly unpopular in blue-state synagogues, but I could see that as part of the security mix. If a potential attacker knows his lifespan could shrink to 10 seconds if he starts threatening and shooting at a school or synagogue, he may reconsider his plans. Numerous examples show effective armed response, such as the almost-instant killing of a shooter at the West Freeway Church of Christ in White Settlement, Texas, in 2019. He had killed two parishioners who drew on him, but others responded.
Would this approach work at synagogues? I don’t know. That’s each organization’s call. But I’m not opposed to it. CBI took a different approach, and it worked. I’m all in favor of diverse approaches, and if an institution opts for the West Freeway Church strategy, I’d say go for it. That’s the Texan in me.
The need for urgent actions takes my memory back to the 2008 Mumbai massacre at the Chabad House. In its aftermath, I attended a memorial service in Connecticut organized by Chabad. While grieving, speakers stressed the need to take spiritual action in the face of the bloodshed (more good deeds, charity, and study of religious texts, for example). It reminded me of the slogan adapted from the last words of labor activist Joe Hill, “Don’t mourn, organize!” I liked that approach.
How’d that play out? I’ve taken responsibility for my safety. That involved a 10-week course in Krav Maga, the self-defense system developed for the Israel Defense Forces. It focused on responding to a threat and getting away, not finding your calm meditative center. In other words: take action. Its workouts exhausted me; at one point a sparring pad I held got kicked so hard it hit me in the face and knocked the lenses out of my glasses. I also joined the Community Emergency Response team (CERT) when I lived in Westport, Connecticut. The training included a sobering session on active-shooter responses; a policeman explained the evolution in law-enforcement tactics since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999.
This basic awareness of personal defense and community protection makes sense on a larger scale. Be your own bodyguard, take responsibility for your safety. Stories coming out of Colleyville indicate that active-shooter training paid off, and I assume those lessons will inform safety approaches at any vulnerable institution. I imagine we’ll talk about security measure at my synagogue in the wake of the CBI episode, frankly addressing vulnerabilities and procedures. The Westchester suburbs feel safe for me—but recent history shows any place can feel safe until the seconds when it is not safe at all.