‘We are not healed’: The Colleyville synagogue hostage crisis, one year later

On Jan. 15, 2022, a gunman took four people hostage inside Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville. A year later, two of the hostages reflect on how their lives have changed, and what needs to be done to fight the rise in antisemitism in the U.S.

By Miranda Suarez, KERAJanuary 13, 2023 9:45 am, ,

From KERA:

Jeff Cohen is an engineer. He’s from Keller. And he’s the president of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville.

“Up until a year ago, that would have been my whole thing,” he said.

A year ago, a 44-year-old Englishman named Malik Faisal Akram took Cohen and three other people hostage at the synagogue, starting a standoff with police that would last 11 hours. All the hostages managed to escape, and law enforcement entered the building and killed Akram inside.

It helps Cohen to remember that the story always has the same ending: He and the other hostages got out alive.

“We found an opportunity and ran,” Cohen said. “The rabbi threw a chair at him, and we all got out. And that was that.”

On a recent Friday, Cohen ate a quick lunch between interviews in the same room he spent a hellish day as a hostage, a wide sanctuary with colorful stained-glass windows.

Akram told his hostages he was there to demand the release of Aafia Siddiqui, who was convicted on terrorism-related charges in 2010 and is imprisoned at FMC Carswell, a federal prison in nearby Fort Worth. Siddiqui has denied any connection with Akram.

Akram was convinced his hostages somehow had the power to help free Siddiqui, because he believed some centuries-old lies about Jews and power, Cohen said.

Yfat Yossifor / KERA

The entrance to the sanctuary at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville where a man took four people hostage in January 2022.

“I never thought that some guy from Manchester would come across the ocean, come to Colleyville, Texas, and threaten us because he believed that Jews control the world, Jews control the media, Jews control the banks,” Cohen said.

That’s the other reason Cohen wants to keep talking about the hostage crisis. The first anniversary of the incident comes during a time when reports of antisemitic incidents have reached record highs.

A surge in American antisemitism

In 2017, neo-Nazi ralliers in Charlottesville, Va. chanted “Jews will not replace us.”

In 2018, a gunman killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.

In November, former president and current 2024 candidate Donald Trump had dinner with Holocaust-denying streamer Nick Fuentes and the rapper Ye, who has praised Adolf Hitler.

Reports of antisemitic incidents have been on the rise in the U.S. for years, according to the Anti-Defamation League, which has been tracking such incidents since 1979.

In 2021, these reports incidents reached a record high: 2,717 instances of harassment, vandalism and assault. That’s almost three times the number of incidents the ADL recorded in 2015. The states with the most reported incidents were New York, New Jersey, California, Florida, Michigan and Texas.

In 2021, the ADL compiled reports of 112 antisemitic incidents in Texas, compared to fewer than 50 in years prior.

But those high numbers also mean something else, said Cheryl Drazin, the vice president of the ADL’s Central Division, which includes Texas.

“I think the fact that more people are reporting – so the numbers are going up – is about awareness, and about people not being willing to let something pass or laugh it off as a joke, but to take it seriously,” Drazin said. “I don’t see that as a negative.”

For Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, raising that awareness is important. He was the rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel for 16 years, and he was one of the people held hostage last year.

“The problem is, is that there’s too much hate that’s out there,” he said. “There’s too many people that are pushing various forms of hate or enabling the hate to persist.”

Rabbi Charlie, as he’s known, is now the rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Winston-Salem, N.C. and a special advisor on security for the ADL. Since the hostage crisis, he’s testified before Congress about the dangers of antisemitism and spoken at a menorah lighting at the White House alongside the president and first lady.

Yfat Yossifor / KERA

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker was already set to leave Congregation Beth Israel when the hostage crisis happen. "I refuse to let that terrible ordeal taint in any way the 16 years that I had, which were 16 years of blessings serving as the rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville," he said.

The lies that the hostage taker believed about Jews have led to the destruction of Jewish communities throughout history, Cytron-Walker said. That’s why people need to push back against the lies when they hear them.

“If we reduce the amount of enablers in our society, then, and only then, will we reduce the amount of hate,” Cytron-Walker said.

For Jeff Cohen, that means stop being polite. Don’t ignore Uncle Bobby’s offensive remarks at a family dinner, he said. Throw him out.

“When you hear things, you know they’re not true, you close your eyes, you grimace, you roll your eyes, you look the other way, but you don’t say anything,” Cohen said. “And I’m not being accusatory, because before this time last year, I would do the same thing. But we can’t. We need to challenge it when we hear these things.”

‘We’re still healing’

Walking through Congregation Beth Israel today, there’s no obvious sign that there was a hostage crisis here a year ago. That took a lot of work. There were bullet holes and shrapnel damage from the FBI breach, torn up tiles and blown-out doors, Cohen said.

“There were a lot of things that were very obvious scars, and that can all be fixed, and that is all healed,” Cohen said.

That’s just the building, though.

“A year later, we are not healed. We’re still healing,” Cohen said. “And I don’t just mean us. I don’t mean just CBI. I’m talking about the greater community here.”

Cohen choked up as he remembered the immense support the congregation received.

Yfat Yossifor / KERA

Jeff Cohen unrolls a poster gifted by another congregation after the hostage situation on Jan. 6, 2023, at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville.

In fact, the only signs of the hostage crisis left at the synagogue now are the reminders of that support. Framed postcards from Japan hang on one wall. Copies of Congressional declarations condemning antisemitism on another. And a huge poster that Cohen unrolls. When he holds it up, it’s taller than he is.

The poster is from the students of Temple Adat Shalom in Poway, California, and it’s full of messages of support and encouragement.

“I am Jewish as well and I know that there is a lot of hate directed towards us. I hope this never happens to you or anyone else ever again,” one message reads.

“I myself am scared that it might happen to our Temple but knowing you can be brave, I can be brave too,” reads another.

Just a few years ago, another temple in these children’s city was attacked by a gunman.

These notes, and the support from around the world, reminds Congregation Beth Israel that it is not alone.

If you found the reporting above valuable, please consider making a donation here. Your gift helps pay for everything you find on texasstandard.org and KERA. Thanks for donating today.