Two days after the trauma at my synagogue, I finally broke down in tears, trying to understand why anyone would target Congregation Beth Israel, a small congregation in an out-of-the-way place.
Of course, that is something we are unlikely to ever know.
New details continue to trickle out about 44-year-old Malik Faisal Akram of Great Britain, who arrived at Congregation Beth Israel’s door on Saturday, January 15 before the start of Shabbat services. Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker greeted the stranger and allowed him to come inside to warm on the unusually cold morning. The rabbi even made him a cup of hot tea. Rabbi Charlie had no way of knowing that he had been duped and that the man to whom he had extended compassion would turn on him and three others who were worshiping inside the sanctuary that morning.
Due to the latest COVID surge, many congregants attended services online and heard as Akram took four people hostage. Like most other Congregation Beth Israel members, I listened to the terrifying livestream while texting and calling synagogue friends, trying to figure out who was being held in the sanctuary so we could provide support and comfort to their families.
Finally, we learned that the hostages were free and the gunman was dead. This was the best outcome we could have hoped for, but we are still a long way from moving past the trauma of the darkest chapter in the synagogue’s 23-year history.
As we begin to move forward, we should not try to forget that we are always vulnerable, and we must remain committed to our safety and protection. But can we reconcile security with our Jewish values? How can we welcome prospective new members if we are afraid to open the door to anyone unknown?
As a charter member of this synagogue, I have been reflecting on our founding and how we might not have our synagogue had we not been willing to take a leap of faith and build it in a wealthy, conservative Bible Belt community, surrounded by churches with members who believe that Jews killed Jesus.
In 1998, three local Jewish women decided to see who would show up when they hosted a Yom Kippur break-fast meal. They invited every Jewish resident of Northeast Tarrant County to attend. Nearly 300 people came.
“Who knew?” said Anna Eisen, one of the three women and Congregation Beth Israel’s founding president.
A year later, the decision was made to move forward with the establishment of Congregation Beth Israel on a street known as “church row.” We had no building, no rabbi, but we were committed. We rented and borrowed space for services and religious school classes. Lay leaders led our services until we were able to bring in student rabbis from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati.
We all rolled up our sleeves and contributed where we could, whether by donating money or lending elbow grease.
My contributions have included helping prepare food for holiday celebrations, teaching Hebrew classes to children, producing the monthly newsletter and serving on various committees, on the board of directors and now as Sisterhood president.
The First United Methodist Church of Colleyville was the first of the churches to embrace our fledgling congregation, allowing us to use their sanctuary for services and other facilities for religious school classes. Our members went into the church every Friday afternoon to cover the large crosses with wall hangings so we would be comfortable.
Our building was completed in 2005, and my daughter was one of the first to be called to the Torah as a bat mitzvah that year. Rabbi Charlie was hired the following year, and he presided at my son’s bar mitzvah in 2009.
My family’s spiritual and community life has been tied to Congregation Beth Israel throughout, and I could not imagine a more meaningful and gratifying experience. I appreciate the intimacy of a small congregation like Congregation Beth Israel, which has a membership of less than 200 families—a vast departure from the large synagogue in the Chicago area to which my family belonged.
Most of us at Congregation Beth Israel are transplants who came to the Dallas-Fort Worth area for job opportunities. We have become like extended family for one another. The synagogue has always encouraged these relationships by hosting Rosh Hashanah luncheons, Yom Kippur breakfasts, Hanukkah potlucks and second seders, so no one ever has to worry about being alone on a holiday.
Rabbi Charlie also made it his business to see that everyone had a place at a seder table on the first night of Pesach.
This is who we are. We look out for one another, provide meals to those who are ill and comfort to those in mourning, and link arms in a hora to celebrate joyful life cycle events.
As we work to heal from the wounds of the attack, we are also grappling with the impending departure of Rabbi Charlie, our first and only full-time rabbi. We have known of his pending departure since October and the tragic attack has only compounded the sadness many of us feel, even though we understand that change is inevitable in the lifetime of a synagogue.
Through his leadership we have built sturdy relationships with the local churches and other faith organizations that will last well beyond his tenure.
We took a leap of faith to build our synagogue in a place among strangers, where we were probably deemed unwelcome by many. We have long since moved past being wary of newcomers to our neighborhood to becoming good neighbors and even friends.
We can take comfort from our past as we heal and try to define our future.
Will we be willing to open our doors and hearts to those who need us or want to join us? Will we be able to trust again?
Only time will tell.