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‘Aggressive’ security training paid off, saved lives in Texas synagogue attack

Since 2018 Tree of Life massacre, US Jewish Jewish groups have worked intensively to teach synagogues and community institutions how to best react when their lives are in danger

A view of the Secure Community Network's new command center in Chicago. (Courtesy of SCN  via JTA)
A view of the Secure Community Network's new command center in Chicago. (Courtesy of SCN via JTA)

WASHINGTON  — When a Texas rabbi flung a chair at his armed kidnapper, allowing himself and two others to escape, it was not only fast thinking — it was the result of an aggressive campaign in the United States to train synagogues and other Jewish institutions to protect themselves.

Charlie Cytron-Walker, the rabbi at the Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas, credited training by Secure Communities Network (SCN) with helping him escape the British man who invaded the synagogue on Saturday and held four men hostage for 10 hours before being killed by security forces.

“It was terrifying,” he told CBS.

“When I saw an opportunity where he wasn’t in a good position, I made sure that the two gentlemen who were still with me, that they were ready to go” out a nearby exit, he said.

“I told them to go. I threw a chair at the gunman and I headed for the door, and all three of us were able to get out without even a shot being fired.”

A fourth hostage had been released an hour earlier.

SWAT team members deploy near Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue during a hostage situation in Colleyville, Texas, January 15, 2022; Congregation Beth Israel Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker. (Andy Jacobsohn/AFP; Congregation Beth Israel)

Eric Fingerhut, president of the Jewish Federations of North America, called Cytron-Walker’s action the “direct result” of his group’s nationwide push to train local Jewish communities for life-threatening attacks.

They really teach you

Since an antisemitic attacker killed 11 people during Jewish sabbath services at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on October 27, 2018, the need for active shooter training is greater than ever, according to Fingerhut.

“We’ve had the most really violent three years, probably in the history of our country, in terms of attacks on visible Jewish institutions,” he told AFP.

“So the threat couldn’t be higher. And our response is aggressive,” he said.

Eric Fingerhut, the CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America. (Hillel)

The Jewish Federations sponsors SCN and provides funding for Jewish institutions to train with them and others in awareness and reaction.

“For the past few years, we’ve had training,” Cytron-Walker said. “They really teach you in those moments that when your life is threatened, you need to do whatever you can to get to safety.”

SCN held training at the Colleyville synagogue in August 2021.

“We’ve had live shooter training, we’ve done stop-the-bleed training, we’ve done run-hide-fight training for our security teams and the membership who want to be involved,” Beth Israel president Michael Finfer told CNN.

The training, with support from the FBI, Department of Homeland Security, and local law enforcement has grown with the emergence of a more open extreme-right, and neo-nazis and white supremacists, emboldened during four years under president Donald Trump.

The Jewish Federations are in the process of raising $54 million for a new program, LiveSecure, to match funds raised by 146 community-based Jewish groups around the country for their security training.

A memorial for the victims of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. (Hane Grace Yagel via JTA)

Meanwhile, Congress has proposed increasing by tens of millions of dollars aid for security hardware like camera systems, for not only Jewish institutions but others as well.

The effort accelerated after the October 2018 Tree of Life attack, said Fingerhut.

“That was sort of the 9/11 of the Jewish community,” he said.

As bad as it was, he said, the Pittsburgh massacre could have been worse if it hadn’t been for security training.

Synagogue staff and congregants had learned to make sure exits were not blocked, allowing many to flee.

And, breaking traditional restrictions for the Sabbath, a security-minded rabbi had kept a cellphone on him, and could call the 911 emergency number.

“So actually we know for a fact that it saved lives there,” Fingerhut said.

Security personnel search peoples’ bags and clothes as they arrive for an interfaith service at Park East Synagogue in New York, October 31, 2018. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

The security push has brought along with it the debate over whether officials and members of Jewish congregations should be armed, echoing arguments over whether teachers and others should carry guns.

Fingerhut would not take a position on the issue.

“There are disagreements, of course, and some synagogues are more open to that than others,” he said.

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