Texas standoff concerns local Jewish congregation

·6 min read

Jan. 21—PLATTSBURGH — Congregation Beth Israel.

Temple Beth Israel.

Congregation Beth Israel.

Temple Beth Israel.

More resonates than just their names.

Congregants at Temple Beth Israel are upset.

Congregants at Temple Beth Israel are scared.

Temple Beth Israel's Rabbi David Kominsky said this isn't new for Jewish people.

Not in Colleyville, Texas.

Not in Plattsburgh, NY.

"The events on Saturday in Texas has really thrown most of the Jewish clergy I know for a loop and a lot of congregants as well," he said.

Malik Faisal Akram, a 44-year-old British Pakistani armed with a pistol, took four people hostage in the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue during streamed Shabbat services, according to international and national media outlets.

During hostage negotiations, Akram, demanded the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani national and al-Qaeda operative, imprisoned in nearby Fort Worth for attempted murders and other crimes.

"He chose a synagogue because he had the belief that Jews controlled the world and therefore they could put pressure on to make what he wanted to have happen happened, which is a relatively, especially in the modern era, is an antisemitic trope that has existed," Kominsky said.

"It was behind 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion' (alleged 1902 blueprint for Jewish world domination) and is one of those problematic beliefs that was behind Hitler's blaming the Jews for the surrender of Germany in World War I.

"That was the underlying piece, I think, of that attack."

SIMILAR AND SOMETHING DIFFERNT

In Texas, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and Jeffrey R. Cohen were two of the four hostages that escaped an 11-hour standoff, according to news reports.

"In some ways this is just another attack on a synagogue, and in some ways this was very different in that it was a hostage situation whereas most of the others had been focused on killing people," Kominsky said.

"It was the rabbi and the congregants in the room, who had to self-rescue, who had to escape. I will say that every rabbi has absolutely thought about what they would do if someone come into the sanctuary with weapons. We all have pictured ourselves in that position."

Many rabbis, as well as African-American pastors and Muslim imams, have pondered attack scenarios and appropriate responses.

"Many of us make the assumption, should that happen, we are not likely to walk out of there," Kominsky said.

"I have colleagues say they think about this every time they walk into their sanctuary. I don't think about it that often, but it is definitely something I am aware of."

Kominsky has consciously thought about what he would do in order to help protect his congregation.

"The fact that as a result of that, I am not super likely to walk out alive," he said.

"I know a lot of my colleagues have the same intention. That's a weight on us to some degree and much so on our loved ones."

'DISTURBED INDIVIDUAL'

The BBC reported Tuesday that MI5, Britain's counterintelligence and security agency, investigated Akram in 2020 and had him on a watch list as a "subject of interest" but concluded that he no longer posed a threat.

FBI agents, who are investigating the hostage-taking as a terrorist act, have assembled a partial timeline of Akram's actions.

On Dec. 29, 2021, Akram arrived at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York.

When passing through customs, Akram listed a Queens hotel as his local address.

The FBI is still investigating whether Akram stayed in the Queens location before traveling to Texas.

At some point between Dec. 29, 2021 and Jan. 2, 2022, Akram arrived in Texas and stayed at OurCalling, a Dallas homeless shelter.

While hostage taker's portrait still has some gaps, it overall suggests Akram was a disturbed individual whose behavior occasionally raised concerns — but not urgent alarms — among security officials.

"There definitely is a mental health aspect to all this, I would argue," Kominsky said.

"I don't know for sure, but it looks that way to me. At the same time, I've seen a couple of people trying to frame this in terms of it being a mental health issue. There is a mental health issue there, but the choice of target wasn't random. It was a function of antisemitism and a function of antisemitic beliefs that meant that it was a Jewish congregation that was targeted again."

PROACTIVE TRAINING

Congregation Beth Israel's hostages attributed their survival to a training provided by the Secure Community Network, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the Jewish community in the United States, according to The Dallas Morning News.

At least since Pittsburgh (2018 anti-Semitic mass shooting at Tree of Life — Or L'Simcha Congregation, a Conservative Jewish synagogue in Pa.), I'm not aware of any Jewish congregation that hasn't had conversations, made changes, in most cases that I am aware of, and consulted with various people about security measures," Kominsky said.

"We have had security audits done by various local law enforcement agencies helping us think through some of these issues.

"I know we are going to have another set of conversations around this. This circumstance brought up another set of issues to be thought through. And I'm sure that we will think about our situation in light of this, and if there whether are other changes that we need to be making."

Most Jewish congregations have security plans in place whether with keeping doors locked or the presence of security guards during all services, according to Kominsky.

"This is just different from what mainline Christian congregations need to do in their thinking," he said.

"Actually, I don't know a lot about African- American churches and the degree to which they have instituted additional security over the years. I would guess that mosques also share some of these same issues as well.

"But, we have been forced to think about security, danger and risk in a way that most religious America has not."

FRAGILE RESILIENCE

The hostage taker was fatally shot by tactical officers from the FBI Hostage Rescue Team, according to news sources.

"I will be quite frank," Kominsky said.

"This one has thrown me for a loop in a way for longer than previous events have. I think partly because most of the previous have been very quick in terms that they were shooting instances, they happened, and they were over virtually as soon as we knew about them whereas this one was spending all of Saturday watching for updates and worrying and praying and imagining ourselves in that place knowing that it is a real possibility."

Temple Beth Israel is the closest synagogue to multiple prisons in the region.

"Each time I wind up sending out an email to people as soon as I can saying, here's where we are, here's what we know and this is upsetting and we're all here together and just trying to let people know they are not alone," Kominsky said.

"They are not crazy for feeling upset by this or threatened by this. I've just had to send out too many of these emails over the years."

Email Robin Caudell:

rcaudell@pressrepublican.com

Twitter:@RobinCaudell