Rabbi Kliel Rose’s says his heart “just sank” Saturday night when he realized the rabbi being held hostage in a Texas synagogue was his good friend, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker.
Rabbi Cytron-Walker and three congregants were taken hostage Jan. 15 during Shabbat morning services at Congregation Beth Israel, a Reform synagogue in Colleyville, Texas. The hostages were released unharmed after being held captive for 11 hours. The suspect died in the incident.
“Charlie Cytron-Walker is really one of the kindest people I have met in my life… There’s something entirely unfair about this given who he is and the amount of compassion (he has),” Rabbi Rose, spiritual leader of Winnipeg’s Congregation Etz Chayim said in an interview with The CJN.
“If I know Charlie, he was there just being a pastoral presence to everyone, including the person who was holding him hostage. That’s just his personality.”
The two men met when they were in a group of about 20 rabbis selected to participate in the two-year professional development program, called the Clergy Leadership Incubator. They also met monthly for two years in a small group to discuss synagogue practices.
“Over and over, I was so impressed by his level of compassion, his thoughtfulness,” Rabbi Rose said. “I know his community feels very fortunate, not only that he’s now safe, but in general to have him as their rabbi.”
The rabbis spoke several times about the importance of interfaith understanding and building bridges with the surrounding community, Rabbi Rose said.
“Over and over again we heard just how prominent and involved Charlie was in the local interfaith community. That’s just who he is, he doesn’t just talk the talk, he walks the walk. I know that is a critical part of his rabbinate.”
As the incident dragged on throughout the day, there was “an outpouring of love,” from a number of faith groups “especially from the Muslim community considering that the kidnapper himself was from the Muslim community,” Rabbi Rose noted.
The hostage taker, who had said he was armed, had demanded the release of a woman who is serving an 86-year sentence at a facility in Texas for the attempted murder of American soldiers in Afghanistan.
Rabbi Rose said he hopes the incident is not seen seized upon by “fundamentalist members” of faith groups as fuel for Islamophobia, but becomes an impetus to strengthen interfaith dialogue.
“If anything, I hope it propels all of us, rabbis, imams, minsters to do more. This is the right response of being involved in those interfaith networks and increasing our involvement and bringing that to our congregations and communities.”
Watching the hostage taking unfold, Rabbi Rose said it brought home to him how vulnerable rabbis are as they try to maintain a balance between being welcoming and protecting their congregations. At times he said he has had concerns for his own personal safety, when certain people have walked into synagogues he was attending.
“My wife, who is a really strong, really resilient person… just broke down and started to cry,” when she heard about the incident. “She said ‘that could have been you. That could have been any of our close rabbinic friends or our friends who are ministers.’”
“We in the Jewish community need to be vigilant about our safety but we can’t be over-reactive and stop ourselves from doing what is right,” Rabbi Rose said. “I hope to God that this doesn’t prevent us from really getting to know our neighbours and walking in the path that Rabbi Cytron-Walker is really regarded for.”