WASHINGTON — The Texas rabbi held at gunpoint for 11 hours along with three other congregants at his synagogue last month shared how the decision to let the initially unassuming hostage-taker inside has continued to haunt him, as he urged US lawmakers to double security funding for religious institutions during Congressional testimony on Tuesday.
“I have thought about that moment a great deal. I welcomed a terrorist into my congregation. Four of us could have died and I would have been responsible. I live with that responsibility,” Cytron-Walker told the US House Homeland Security Committee during his emotional testimony.
Congress doubled funding for the security grant program in late 2020, to $180 million, but faith groups are asking for it to be doubled again. An array of religious groups last month urged US President Joe Biden to double the funding, and Sen. Chuck Schumer, the New York Democrat and majority leader, has joined the effort.
Jewish groups, including the Jewish Federations of North America, the Orthodox Union and Agudath Israel of America, helped craft the legislation that created the fund in the mid-2000s after a number of attacks on Jewish institutions. Jewish groups were for years the main beneficiaries of the grants, which pay for fortifying susceptible institutions and adding security systems, but in recent years other faith groups have asked for funds in light of attacks on mosques, Sikh temples and Black churches.
Tuesday’s hearing came less than a month after Malik Faisal Akram, a 44-year-old British national, knocked on the window of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville and asked for shelter. Cytron-Walker let him in and proceeded to make him tea as he prepared the synagogue for Saturday morning services. Shortly after the four congregants began praying, Akram pulled out his gun and proceeded to hold the worshippers hostage for 11 hours, demanding the release of a Pakistani national serving an 86-year sentence for terror charges at a prison nearby. Akram released one of the hostages midway through the standoff and the remaining three managed to escape physically unharmed just before FBI agents breached the building and took out the attacker in a shootout.
In urging Congress to increase funding for at-risk nonprofits, Cytron-Walker spoke Tuesday about his mixed feelings over the subject, given how boosted security at synagogues can sometimes lead to less welcoming environments.
“I’m filled with mixed and contradictory emotions,” Cytron-Walker told the House committee. “I’m horrified that 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.”
The rabbi went on to explain the challenge of running a small synagogue, in that there isn’t always enough funding to hire full-time security staff. “I was running late, checking the sound system, and in the midst of trying to do a million things,” he said, recalling the moments before the attacker arrived.
At the same time, Cytron-Walker clarified that he still did his best to vet Akram before letting him in.
“This was not a case of me opening the door just because I value hospitality,” Cytron-Walker said.
While he admitted that his decision to let Akram inside had been wrong in hindsight, he noted — as another one of the hostages did in an interview with The Times of Israel — that he made use of the security training conducted at the synagogue and that Akram did not show signs of being unstable. Cytron-Walker served him tea just before starting services.
“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 [the training I’ve undergone] I still opened the door,” he testified.
“But because of plans and funding and courses, and dozens of small things that went our way, we were able to escape,” he added.
Cytron-Walker said he had undergone six security training courses in as many years run by local and federal law enforcement as well as private Jewish organizations.
However, he said less than half of the requests Congregation Beth Israel submitted to receive federal security grants were accepted, citing an insufficient number of staff members available to adjudicate the applications.
Lawmakers present during the hearing noted a steady rise in hate crimes across the US, particularly in Jewish communities. Despite making up just two percent of the population, Jews were targeted in 55% of all religion-based hate crimes, according to figures from the FBI.
JTA contributed to this report.