One year ago, a lone gunman walked into a Texas synagogue and took four people hostage. After a difficult 11-hour standoff, the hostages escaped unharmed.
The remarkable outcome was made possible by the quick thinking of Charlie Cytron-Walker, the rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville. He threw a chair at the gunman and helped others flee the scene.
Cytron-Walker’s resourcefulness was a result of his participation in security and preparedness courses, and it prompted other Jewish communities to contemplate how they would respond in a similar situation.
While the actions taken by US Jewish communities since the Colleyville crisis are a necessary step forward, by looking back we can also reinforce some of the lessons learned so that we can continue to increase our collective preparedness, in case, G-d forbid, we are faced with a similar situation.
Be aware and see the signs
The gunman appeared at Congregation Beth Israel on Shabbat morning posing as a homeless man seeking shelter. Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker welcomed him in. After the rescue, Cytron-Walker said he had not been suspicious of the stranger. But he also said he noticed that some of his story didn’t add up, although that it wasn’t uncommon for people who showed up at the synagogue. Should he have asked more questions?
In general, it is important to learn to recognize suspicious behavior. Some also suggest Jewish synagogues hire guards for the entrance or law enforcement agencies to patrol the neighborhoods. The truth is, it is probably in everyone’s best interest to do all of the above. By taking a multifaceted approach, community leaders can help keep their members safe and reduce the risk of a potential attack.
Invest in human behavior
No matter how well-protected a building’s infrastructure, it’s not always enough. A small congregation – like Colleyville’s Beth Israel – doesn’t always have the means to invest in guards at the door.
A community shouldn’t rely on guards and they shouldn’t rely on one person either. Instead they should invest in human behavior. Training their leaders and congregants to improve response and reaction times during emergencies can provide clarity in a crisis.
Get training, make a plan
As hours passed and the situation became more serious, Cytron-Walker and the other hostages positioned themselves near an exit, which they ultimately used to make their escape. The rabbi credits the training he received through the Anti-Defamation League and other organizations as ultimately helping him assess the risks of Saturday’s situation and saving his life.
While receiving the right training (through drills and exercises that simulate real-world attacks) is crucial, so is building, practicing, and reviewing a strong safety plan. A preparedness plan will give communities and congregations a chance to suggest locations for cameras, familiarize themselves with emergency exits, assess proper lighting, plan escape routes and identify potential weak spots.
Invest in a culture of preparedness
To improve safety protocols at your synagogue, school or JCC, the leadership must invest in a culture of preparedness. The hostages escaped after many hours because Cytron-Walker was prepared. That means evaluating security needs and preparing a vulnerability assessment that addresses those needs, developing emergency procedures, a communication plan, and an operational plan of action, along with creating a committee of leaders in charge of implementing these protocols.
As we reflect on the one-year anniversary of the Colleyville hostage situation, it is important to remember human behavior saves lives. If Cytron-Walker had not been calm and level headed as well as prepared for emergencies, the hostage incident would have turned out very differently. Training can be the difference between life and death and it is crucial that we take the time to educate ourselves and those around us.
Let us remember the lessons of the past and work towards a safer future for our Jewish communities with the right preparedness efforts.