Eleven horrific hours left Jeffrey R. Cohen wrestling with a range of emotions for most of the year.
It brings him to tears as he recalls how Colleyville and the larger North Texas community, embracing various religious and political views, reacted after January 15 when he and three others were taken hostage in their synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel.
Less often, he gets angry, mostly at the circumstances that allowed his hate-filled and unstable kidnapper, 44-year-old Malik Faisal Akram, to get his hands on a weapon. But he also feels compassion and some regret that the confrontation ended with the death of the hostage-taker.
The alarm is delayed. He fears large crowds and social gatherings and is always looking for a way out. It’s a reality, he says, to be Jewish in a country where anti-Semitism is back in the spotlight.
“You learn a lot,” Cohen said in an interview, reflecting on the attack. “These things change people. It shakes you up and makes you do other things, hopefully better things, with your life and your time.”
But with insight comes the desire to shut down. Cohen, a senior engineer at Lockheed Martin, said he was ready to move forward: “I have done a lot more and intend to do a lot more than spend 11 hours as a hostage.”
What happened on January 15
On the day of the attack, the Beth Israel congregation held a Sabbath service that began at 10 am. The synagogue, headed by Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker at the time, broadcast its service live.
Before the beginning of the service, a stranger knocked on the door of the synagogue. He said he was homeless, and Cytron-Walker offered him a cup of tea. Cytron-Walker and the other members of the synagogue did not know that the man was armed and on a mission.
While Cytron-Walker was praying, he and Cohen heard a click, the sound of Akram activating the action of the Taurus G2C pistol he had illegally bought two days earlier. The man who sold it to him was sentenced to eight years in prison.
“[Akram] said, and I remember it well, that “Jews control the media, Jews control the banks, Jews have all the power, and President Trump and President Biden will never allow a Jew to be harmed,” Cohen said. “That’s why he chose the synagogue, because he internalized it.”
Akram, a British citizen, also had a demand for the release of Aafia Siddiqi, a Pakistani serving an 86-year sentence for shooting two U.S. soldiers during interrogation at nearby Carswell Federal Medical Center in Fort Worth. He repeatedly asked to speak to Siddiqui. Her lawyer later told NBC News that Siddiqui did not approve of Akram’s actions.
“When he realized that Siddiqui wasn’t going to talk to him… he started to go crazy,” Cohen said. “Before that, we thought there was a negotiated solution.”
Early on, after Akram allowed the hostages to call their families, Cohen said that Cytron-Walker “stayed on the other side of the room, willing to take risks” so that the others could escape. But Cohen didn’t let that happen: “We needed all of us to survive. We weren’t going to leave him.”
Cohen worked methodically to get everyone together at one of the exits as his thoughts ran through the different scenarios. He left the Coke can unopened in case he needed to throw it at Akram. He decided to turn over the table Akram was sitting at to divert attention. He thought about grabbing a knife in the kitchen. But in the end, Cohen and the other hostages took the more passive route, which he said worked “as long as [Akram] began to develop in the last half an hour.
“[Akram] was on the phone, hung up and told us to get on our knees,” Cohen said. “That was the only time I challenged him. At that moment, I decided that I didn’t want to endure it.”
Cytron-Walker then threw a chair at Akram, which gave the hostages time to escape and gave the FBI team, flown to Texas from Virginia, the chance they had been waiting for to enter the building. They broke into the synagogue and shot Akram dead. All hostages were not hurt.
Though grateful to be alive, Cohen mourns the loss of Akram’s life.
“People said: “We are glad that no one was hurt.” But the man died,” he said. “He was human. Is there anything else I could do to keep him from dying? I don’t feel his blood on my hands, but could I do more? I’m still not sure.”
The Beth Israel siege was a “monumental event” for the Jews of North Texas, said Stacey Cushing, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.
“Word has just been circulating all over North Texas about the rise of extremism and that anti-Semitism has always been and remains a problem and that we all need to work together to fight and fight not only anti-Semitism but all forms of hate. . ,” she said.
It also followed a dark year of anti-Semitic hatred. In 2021, the ADL tracked 2,717 incidents of hate, including attacks, vandalism, and harassment, against Jews in America. Texas had 112 incidents, or about one every three days. The total number of cases of hatred against Jews in the country was the highest since the ADL began tracking these numbers in 1979.
The organization will not release its 2022 data for several months. But the recent rise of anti-Semitism, including by popular figures like Kanye West, heralds another bleak year. Last year in North Texas, hate groups scattered anti-Semitic literature on the lawns in Colleyville, and a neo-Nazi group protested a Grande Prairie drag show, flashing Hitler cheers and swearing at attendees.
Hatred is, of course, nothing new. But Cushing said social media has only encouraged the groups that use it.
“Hatred is growing because of the ability to spread so quickly,” Cushing said. “In a world where we can communicate in seconds, it’s as easy to spread messages of hate and extremism as it is to spread messages of hope and love.”
“Basically not afraid”
After the siege, Cytron Walker and the rest of the congregation received widespread praise for their commitment to interfaith healing, a postulate of the rabbi’s beliefs even before he was taken hostage.
“This is at the heart of Charlie’s DNA,” said Joel Schwitzer, regional director of the American Jewish Committee in Dallas. “When it all ended, he was afraid that people would not want to be so open and welcoming to others. It really occurred to us at that time and afterwards that interfaith relations, in particular Jewish-Muslim relations, played a huge role in the healing after the incident.”
Cytron-Walker left his position with the Beth Israel congregation months after the attack, as part of a pre-planned career transition.
Rabbi Scott Sperling, who joined the synagogue as interim rabbi in July, called rebuilding the community “a huge challenge.” Not only were parishioners kept out of the building for three months after the attack due to renovations, but the pandemic kept many parishioners out of its physical quarters a year ago.
Sperling says some members are still reluctant to enter the building, citing ongoing security concerns — even after a year of security measures being put in place on campus. Sperling said it’s a fine line that the community must balance between being a welcoming space and not turning the synagogue into a “fortress.”
“The week of Hanukkah was a real turning point for the congregation and for me,” he said, explaining that Hanukkah signifies rededication and marks a successful fight for religious freedom. According to him, the eight nights of the holiday in December were very attended, and more people are returning to regular services and programs run by the community.
“The symbolism of all this didn’t escape me, and I don’t think it escaped the attention of the meeting,” Sperling said. “I think there is a feeling that we are on the road to healing. I don’t think we’re there yet, but we’re definitely on our way.”
On Friday, the congregation holds a private ceremony during its regular evening services to thank and honor first responders who worked with the congregation after the attack, as well as members of the local interfaith community who “opened their hearts to us,” Sperling said. .
“We may have our concerns, but we are fundamentally not afraid to express ourselves as Jews,” he said. “We have these traditions, we have this history that you can look back at and say, ‘We know how to do it.’