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Texas rabbi taken hostage tells U.S. House panel: I’m haunted by my decision to open the door to the terrorist

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker of Congregation Beth Israel addresses reporters during a January news conference in Colleyville, Tex. (Elias Valverde II/Dallas Morning News/AP)
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A Texas rabbi taken hostage last month in his synagogue told U.S. House members Tuesday that he is haunted by his decision that Sabbath morning to open the door and let in the man who later proved to be a terrorist.

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker was among those testifying virtually before two subcommittees — one on emergency preparedness, response and recovery; and one on intelligence and counterterrorism — about threats to the American Jewish community and the need to provide more federal money to help nonprofits in general shore up their security training and buildings.

Cytron-Walker on Tuesday cited previous training in helping the hostages figure out, during the 11-hour ordeal, how to eventually escape. The gunman was shot and killed by authorities just after that exit.

“I was running late, checking the sound system, and in the midst of trying to do a million things, I had a stranger come to the door. I have thought about that moment a great deal. I welcomed a terrorist into my congregation. I live with that responsibility,” Cytron-Walker testified.

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The hearing was focused on a federal grant program that provides funding for houses of worship — and other at-risk nonprofits — to train and prepare themselves for potential physical attacks. In introducing Cytron-Walker, lawmakers noted that the number of hate crimes in general in the United States has been dramatically climbing in the past five years, and that FBI hate-crime statistics show incidents against Jews constitute nearly 55 percent of all religion-based hate crimes, even though Jews make up about 2 percent of the U.S. population.

Rabbi Yosef Konikov, of Chabad of South Orlando, told lawmakers Jewish people are afraid to come into the synagogue or school.

“People call me and ask: ‘Rabbi, is the guard there today? Otherwise I don’t think I’m going to come,’ ” Konikov said. He noted that neo-Nazis in Orlando attacked a Jewish motorist two weeks ago and the same group a few months ago set up in front of the Chabad building with swastikas and loudspeakers to intimidate Jews.

Since the 2018 deadly attack on the Pittsburgh synagogue Tree of Life, Eric Fingerhut, leader of the Jewish Federations of North America — the umbrella group for many Jewish institutions — testified that “we have experienced the most intense period of violent attacks on Jews in the history of the United States. This is a moment of crisis, of unique crisis for Jewish communities in America. We respectfully and urgently ask you to respond.”

Jewish communities have been especially focused in the past two decades on security training and investment, and the hearing was about expanding the federal grant program from $180 million to $360 million to help Jewish communities but also many other religious and nonprofit organizations.

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Cytron-Walker said fewer than half of grant applications last year were approved, and the program doesn’t have enough administrative staff, so congregations that get rejected don’t get any feedback on why.

Fingerhut said the Jewish community launched the Secure Community Network in 2004 with the goal of securing every Jewish institution in the country. However, he said, even though the Jewish community has worked to raise millions in philanthropy, it’s also the role of the U.S. government to protect religious institutions in general, Jewish and non-Jewish. The resources needed, he said, are “vast.”

Cytron-Walker said his first security training related to the synagogue was six years ago and that since then he has completed a half-dozen, run by local and federal law enforcement as well as private Jewish groups that work on security for Jewish institutions.

However, he noted that he himself had let the attacker into the synagogue last month, an act he said embodies the conflicts religious people feel on this topic of congregational security — the need to be prepared as well as the call to love and welcome the stranger.

Malik Faisal Akram, a 44-year-old British Pakistani armed with a pistol in the incident, presented himself as someone in need of shelter.

Dylann Roof, a white supremacist who killed nine Black churchgoers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in 2015 in Charleston, S.C., walked into the church and sat in on a Bible study group before shouting racial epithets and shooting.

“I’m filled with mixed and contradictory emotions,” Cytron-Walker said Tuesday. “I’m horrified in our society religious leaders must devote themselves to security training, how to harden our facilities. It’s necessary and yet anathema to loving the stranger,” he said.

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His comments also highlighted the experience of small congregations, like Beth Israel, in Colleyville, where the hostage-taking happened. At Beth Israel, he said, there are only two paid staff: him and a part-time administrative staffer. On the morning of the hostage-taking, just he and a volunteer were getting ready for Sabbath services when the attacker knocked at the door.

Cytron-Walker said his decision was obviously wrong in hindsight, but he noted that when the man came in, the rabbi served him tea and asked questions about how he wound up at the synagogue that morning.

“It gave me the opportunity to see if he was acting nervously. Security and hospitality can go hand in hand. I didn’t see any red flags. Of course I was wrong; despite all [this training and preparation] I still opened the door. But because of plans and funding and courses, and dozens of small things that went our way, we were able to escape.”

Also Tuesday, Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt testified before the U.S. Senate for her confirmation hearing to lead the State Department’s office that aims to monitor and combat antisemitism. President Biden nominated Lipstadt, a professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University, last July. If approved by the Senate, Lipstadt will have the rank of ambassador, unlike her predecessors.