Jewish leaders urge worship attendance after hostage siege
On the eve of her 100th birthday Saturday, Ruth Salton told her daughter she was going one way or another to Friday night Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel, just days after a gunman voicing antisemitic conspiracy theories held four worshippers hostage for 10 hours at the Fort Worth-area synagogue.
“I want to support my people,” said Salton, a Holocaust survivor. She said she told her daughter “if she doesn't take me, I'll go by myself, because I feel I belong there. I am Jewish, and this is my faith, and I am supporting it.”
She's far from alone.
Jewish leaders throughout the U.S. are calling for a strong turnout at this weekend's worship services as a statement of defiance against antisemitic acts such as last weekend's hostage siege at Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas.
“SHOW UP IN SHUL THIS SHABBAT ... IN DEFIANCE/JOY/TO SEE FELLOW JEWS,” Emory University history professor Deborah Lipstadt tweeted, using a traditional term for synagogue. She is President Biden's nominee as a special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism abroad.
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of the Tree of Life Congregation in Pittsburgh, who survived the Oct. 27, 2018, mass shooting at his synagogue, echoed the call. After a gunman killed 11 worshipers from three congregations at the synagogue in the deadliest antisemitic hate crime in U.S. history, people packed synagogues around the country the following weekend.
“Do not let the antisemites terrorize us and win by keeping us out of our sacred spaces,” Myers wrote in his blog. “Show up in synagogue, and loudly state by your presence that you will not be driven into hiding. ... (Antisemites) will not chase us from our home. Not now. Not ever.”
Authorities say Malik Faisal Akram, a British national, took the four people who were at Congregation Beth Israel last Saturday hostage. He was demanding the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist convicted of trying to kill U.S. troops in Afghanistan and who is serving a lengthy sentence in a prison in Fort Worth, which is 15 miles (23 kilometers) southwest of Colleyville.
The hostages said Akram cited antisemitic stereotypes, believing that Jews could wield power over President Joe Biden to have Siddiqui released.
The siege ended after the last hostage ran out of the synagogue and an FBI SWAT team rushed in. Akram was killed by multiple gunshot wounds. The Tarrant County Medical Examiner ruled the case a homicide, which under Texas law indicates that one person was killed by another but does not necessarily mean the killing was a crime.
Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who was among the hostages, said Thursday that the congregation was “doing its best to heal.”
“We’re going to have services on Shabbat evening. We’re going to have services on Shabbat morning. We’re going to have religious school on Sunday,” Cytron-Walker said during a webinar Thursday hosted by the Anti-Defamation League.
“I stand before you with great gratitude just to be alive,” he added during a Friday news conference.
Cytron-Walker encouraged those in the Jewish community “to have a Shabbat shalom, a Sabbath of peace.”
“God willing, we’re able to find a sense of wholeness with our families, with our communities. ... And I would extend that not only to the Jewish community, I would extend that to all communities,” he said.
Congregation Beth Israel's services this weekend were being held at another location because the investigation at the synagogue is ongoing. Attendance was limited to members.
“I expect it to be emotional, because we have not had the opportunity to come together and express or experience whatever emotions we have,” said Anna Eisen, Salton's daughter. “I'm ready to hug people.”
Rabbi Noah Farkas, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, said congregations in his region were preparing for greater attendance and were taking coronavirus-related precautions.
“In face of a new wave of antisemitism, where Jews are threatened online, forced to prove themselves on campus and fear eating in restaurants, we must not let the fear our enemies want to instill in us define us,” he said Friday. He called on Jews everywhere to “show the world that we are not afraid to live Jewishly.”
Many Jewish leaders have said the hostage standoff was an example of a larger rise in antisemitic acts. The Anti-Defamation League says such incidents have reached their highest levels since it began tracking them decades ago.
Eisen said that the supportive response of local police and the FBI has made her “feel safer in my community and my country,” but that it’s also important to confront antisemitism.
Eisen, co-author of books about her father’s Holocaust experience and her own as the daughter of Holocaust survivors, said synagogues in Nazi-controlled Europe “were attacked, and people were attacked and killed, because of the same kind of hatred” that was shown last Saturday by the hostage-taker.
“It's nothing new to me. I hate antisemitism. I don't understand why people feel that way about us,” Salton said.
At the same time, having survived the Holocaust and much else, she is ready to celebrate her centennial.
“I would very much like to be 18, but since I'm 100, I'm grateful that I came to a point to live to 100 years,” she said.