Breaking: 1 hostage freed, others remain as Texas synagogue hostage crisis stretches into hour 7

SWAT team members deploy near the Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, Jan. 15, 2022. (Andy Jacobsohn/AFP via Getty Images)

by Ron Kampeas

This is a developing story.

(JTA) — A man is holding a rabbi and several congregants hostage at a synagogue in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas area. The hostage situation unfolded during Shabbat services, which the synagogue was live-streaming on Facebook.

Police said one hostage, a male, was released late Saturday, leaving three still being held.

The man is holding Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and at least three congregants hostage at Congregation Beth Israel, a Reform synagogue in Colleyville, a suburb north of Fort Worth, news outlets are reporting.

The FBI is on the scene as well as local police. The FBI is leading negotiations with the hostage-taker. The White House is also “monitoring” the situation, per reports. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett also said in a tweet that he was “closely monitoring” the situation. As of 5:30 pm, six hours after the hostage taking occurred, Colleyville police said there are no injuries.

In an alert, Secure Community Network, which consults with national and local Jewish organizations, said the man was reportedly armed and making bomb threats.

“We’re not aware of any direct credible threats to any other synagogues,” Michael Masters, who directs SCN, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Masters said the synagogue underwent SCN training in August.  “It was a full training,” he said. “We worked on a number of different scenarios and issues and we have been engaged with that congregation.” Masters said it was too early to tell if the protocols kicked in during the hostage taking.

The man is seeking the freedom of Aafia Siddiqui, a relative by marriage of Khalid Sheikh Muhammad, the chief architect of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Aafia Siddiqui is serving an 86-year sentence in the Fort Worth area for attempting to kill American military personnel after she was arrested in Afghanistan in 2008 on suspicion of plotting attacks in New York. She made multiple antisemitic outbursts during and after her trial.

NBC reported that the man asked Cytron-Walker to call a rabbi in New York, demanding Aafia Siddiqui’s release.

Because the man at one point reportedly referred to Siddiqui as “sister” some initial reports erroneously concluded he was her brother.

A lawyer for a brother of Siddiqui, Muhammad Siddiqui, said Siddiqui was not the man inside the synagogue. The lawyer, John Floyd, is the chairman of the Houston affiliate of CAIR, the Muslim legal advocacy group. CAIR and the Free Aafia movement, which contends that the charges against her are trumped up and that she has been tortured, condemned the hostage-taking.

“This assailant has nothing to do with Dr. Aafia, her family, or the global campaign to get justice for Dr. Aafia,” Floyd said in a statement. “We want the assailant to know that his actions are wicked and directly undermine those of us who are seeking justice for Dr. Aafia.”

At 11:30 a.m. local time, police said they were conducting SWAT operations around the building. A man could be heard yelling on the live stream, talking about his children, his sister and Islam, and saying he believes he is going to die. Police have established phone contact with the man. At 2 p.m. local time, the live stream went down.

The attack comes after two deadly attacks on American synagogues in recent years — in Pittsburgh in 2018 and in Poway, California in 2019 — that changed how many Jewish communities thought about synagogue security. Organizations like SCN have intensified security training in communities across the country.

“This highlights the need for all of us to be aware and vigilant and most importantly to keep the individuals in the synagogue in our thoughts and prayers and hope for a peaceful resolution,” Masters told JTA.

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella group, said it was monitoring the situation. “Collectively, we must spare no effort to ensure that American Jews are safe in their houses of worship and community centers,” it said in a statement.

Jessika Harkay, a reporter at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, shared a number of quotes from the livestream in a series of tweets.

“Don’t cry on the f**king phone with me,” a man says at one point. “Don’t f**king cry on me. I have six beautiful kids … There are hostages in the synagogue who are going to die. … What are you crying for?”

“I’m going to die, are you listening?” the man says, repeatedly. “I’m going to die doing this all right? Are you listening? I’m going to die. Don’t cry about me.”

According to Beth Israel’s website, Cytron-Walker is the congregation’s first full-time rabbi and has been with the congregation since 2006. A native of Lansing, Michigan, Cytron-Walker and his wife have two daughters.

The synagogue is in the process of hiring a rabbi, according to its online calendar.

Cytron-Walker served as a past president of the South West Association of Reform Rabbis and received an award from QESHET: A Network of LGBT Reform Rabbis. Before becoming a rabbi, he worked for a human rights organization in Detroit as well as a soup kitchen in Amherst, Massachusetts.

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