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‘I was not going to let him assassinate us’: How Texas synagogue hostages used security training to flee

The Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Tex. (Andy Jacobsohn/AFP/Getty Images)
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They had been held hostage for 11 hours inside their Texas synagogue when their frustrated captor hung up with negotiators and told them to kneel.

The suspect, Malik Faisal Akram, “had been going all day,” Jeffrey Cohen, one of the four hostages held Saturday at Congregation Beth Israel, said in an interview with The Washington Post. Akram had complained to the hostages that he was cold and that he hadn’t eaten anything except potato chips.

Police were called about 11 a.m. after Akram, armed with a gun and explosives, captured Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, Cohen and two other congregants of Beth Israel, a tightknit community of about 155 families in Colleyville, Tex., a suburb of Fort Worth and Dallas. One hostage, an older man, was released before the others escaped.

The hostages made a pact that they would not try to escape individually, leaving the others to deal with the repercussions. They would all make it out alive together.

Instead of kneeling as Akram had ordered them, Cohen, 57, said he defied the attacker’s demand. He stood up and mouthed the word “no,” looking Akram straight in the eyes.

“I was not going to let him assassinate us,” Cohen said. “I was not going to beg for my life and just have him kill us.”

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Rather than shooting Cohen, Akram backed down. He turned around and put his gun down to pour some soda, Cohen said.

Cytron-Walker, the rabbi, seized on the moment, yelling “run” and throwing a chair at Akram as the three hostages ran out. They had subtly oriented themselves toward the path of an exit throughout the day, waiting for the right time to escape.

Cohen and Cytron-Walker, along with other members of the congregation, had received training on how to manage potential threats — one of the reasons, they say, they came out alive.

Still, Cohen said, “I really thought we’d never use it.”

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Their congregation and many others across the country had sought such training amid heightened concerns of antisemitic attacks following the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018 that left 11 people dead. Their training addressed topics like how to escape a building in an emergency, how to counteract threats, the need to be aware of one’s surroundings, and protocols for letting people into a synagogue.

Beth Israel was more active in preparing for potential security threats than many other congregations, said Cheryl Drazin, the Dallas-based vice president of the Anti-Defamation League’s central division. Security was “very much a part of the congregational culture” at Beth Israel, she said, noting that the congregation often opened programs by announcing where the exits were.

Cytron-Walker had let Akram in from the cold, Cohen said. The rabbi offered the man a warm place to stay, a cup of tea and an Uber ride to a shelter. Cohen had the situational training in mind when he walked into the synagogue and first saw Akram. Akram didn’t initially appear to be a threat when they met, Cohen said: He didn’t show the telltale signs such as darting eyes or nervous fidgeting.

Cohen had attended school in Pittsburgh, where he walked past the Tree of Life synagogue regularly. The attack there “really touched a thread,” Cohen said, “so I paid attention.” He took the training “very seriously,” he said.

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The training was provided by the Secure Community Network, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the Jewish community in the United States.

“I think the reality for us is that this can happen any day, anywhere,” the group’s chief executive, Michael Masters, said in a news conference after the ordeal. “Every time we have responded to an incident … we have heard someone utter the phrase, ‘I never thought it could happen here.’ We have to move beyond that mind-set. We have to understand that it can happen. And we need to be prepared and vigilant for it to happen.” Masters said he was concerned about potential “copycat” attacks; law enforcement personnel around the country had escalated patrols near synagogues and other Jewish communities after Saturday’s standoff.

Another member of the congregation who was not held hostage, Devorah Titunik, praised the training, telling The Post that while “Rabbi Charlie” was known for his calm demeanor, she wasn’t surprised that he threw a chair at Akram. “He saw an opportunity to get them out of there and took it,” she said. “I think part of that comes from the training.”

After the congregants fled the synagogue, Akram followed them out before darting back into the building, Cohen said. The escapees took cover behind a law enforcement vehicle as gunshots and a loud boom rang out from the synagogue.

Akram was soon confirmed dead, though law enforcement officials have not said whether he was shot by police or himself. Akram, a 44-year-old British citizen, had flown to the United States from Britain late last month, first landing in New York before making his way to the Dallas area. He said he was seeking the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani woman being held in federal prison in Fort Worth for trying to kill U.S. soldiers.

Cohen noted that Akram had not told the hostages that he wanted to kill them because they were Jewish, but that he was using them as a bargaining chip. Cohen said the suspect bought into the antisemitic trope that “Jews control the banks, Jews control the media, and Jews control the government.”

Akram told them he believed that if he took Jewish people hostage, the U.S. government would “certainly” release Siddiqui, Cohen said.

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Still, Cohen said he didn’t regret the generosity the congregants had initially shown the stranger who showed up at their synagogue.

“I don’t like what happened. I wish it hadn’t. I wish this guy hadn’t been that way,” he said. “But where would we be in a world if we didn’t welcome the stranger? That would not be a world that I want to be in.”

Brittany Shammas, Drew Harwell and Hannah Knowles in Washington and Mary Beth Gahan in Colleyville, Tex., contributed to this report.

Read more:

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