DePaul’s Jewish students react to Texas synagogue attack


(AP Photo/Brandon Wade)

Police stand in front of the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue, Sunday, Jan. 16, 2022, in Colleyville, Texas. A man held hostages for more than 10 hours Saturday inside the temple. The hostages were able to escape and the hostage taker was killed. FBI Special Agent in Charge Matt DeSarno said a team would investigate “the shooting incident.”

Members of the Jewish community attended the Sabbath service at Congregation Beth Israel on Jan. 15 in Colleyville, Texas. With services being held both online and in person, many were expecting a typical day of faith, worship and bonding with fellow attendees.

According to CNN, that all changed when Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and Jeffery Cohen, vice president of the Board of Trustees, heard the “unmistakable sound of an automatic slide engaging a round.” What would follow was a several-hour standoff between the hostage-taker and negotiators, with the congregation’s attendees caught right in the middle.

For DePaul’s Jewish student population, the attack was unsurprising, and the fear of gathering is all too real.

“When the attack first occurred, it was a great shock. But, it was bound to happen,” said Julia Kagan, secretary of Chabad Jewish Student Club at DePaul, reflecting on the hostage situation at a Jewish synagogue in Texas on Jan. 15.

For Chabad Jewish Student Club president Emily Fridland, the community’s fear of gathering has translated to her uncertainty about the organization’s meetings. The attack on Jan. 15 served as a reminder of the precarity of American Jews’ situation.

“I can’t tell you with 100 percent certainty our events will go smoothly,” Fridland said. “We should be able to practice freely, and everyone should be able to practice their religion freely.”

For several hours, Congregation Beth Israel worshippers waited in terror for hostage negotiators to resolve the situation. During the standoff between attacker Malik Faisal Akram, the hostages and the FBI, Akram made statements about dying and helping to get his sister out of a prison.

According to CNN, the woman Akram requested be released is Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani woman serving 86 years in federal prison. The two are not related.

The attack on the Colleyville synagogue shows that antisemitic attacks can happen anywhere and to anyone. As such, organizations have responded to growing threats.

“Increased numbers of community organizations have had to spend money when they now see that they’re targets. For nothing, just for being Jewish,” said professor Steven Resnicoff, director of the Center for Jewish Law & Judaic Studies.

Part of the FBI’s success in getting the synagogue’s hostages out safely was their rapid response. FBI Director Christopher Wray remarked that the continued contact between Akram and the negotiators was key to the operation.

“Within a matter of hours, we deployed FBI SWAT, two highly trained units from our elite Hostage Rescue Team; those are the folks who ultimately were the ones who went into the synagogue, along with canines,” Wray said. “We had our crisis negotiation unit. We had one of our folks on the phone with the hostage taker for hours and hours, and that turned out to be pretty important.”

As the morning turned into afternoon and then night, tension remained high for those locked inside the synagogue’s walls. The quick-thinking Rabbi Cytron-Walker hurled a chair at Akram, giving him and the remaining hostages enough time to escape. At about 9:12 p.m., a CNN team heard a loud boom — a result of the breach into the building — and the breach team killed the attacker.

No hostages were killed or severely injured during the operation.

Initial statements that night by FBI representative Matt DeSarno indicated that the hostage standoff at Congregation Beth Israel was not a product of Akram’s personal antisemitic sentiments.

“The initial response of the FBI to what happened in the synagogue was really appalling …it boggles the mind,” Resnicoff said.

“We do not believe from our engagement with this subject that he was singularly focused on one issue, and it was not specifically related to the Jewish community,” DeSarno said in a press conference.

Wray later walked back this statement during a Jan. 20 Anti-Defamation League webinar.

“Now let me be clear and blunt: The FBI is, and has been, treating Saturday’s events as an act of terrorism targeting the Jewish community,” Wray said. “We recognize that the Jewish community, in particular, has suffered violence and faces very real threats from really across the hate spectrum.”

“They were very fortunate there was only one hostage-taker,” Resnicoff said. “The Almighty was with them.”

However, in the context of countless recent attacks on Jewish people and their centers of worship, the attack at Congregation Beth Israel was unsurprising for many.

“Unfortunately, when I first heard the news, I wasn’t surprised… [antisemitic attacks] are pretty common now,” said Alexandra Rozhko, social chair for Chabad Jewish Student Club at DePaul.

According to data for 2020 from the Anti-Defamation League’s “Audit on Antisemitic Incidents,” there is a sense that for American Jews, antisemitism is on the rise: one-in-four American Jews say they have been targets of antisemitism in the last 12 months.

Reports indicate that this fear of rising antisemitism and possible attacks on Jews is borne out of fact. Assaults, vandalism and harassment based in antisemitism have all risen between the years 2019 and 2020.

According to the ADL’s audit, acts of assault, vandalism and harassment increased 12 percent over the previous year.

61 percent of the 2,024 registered incidents in 2020 “were cases of harassment, a 10 percent increase from 1,127 in 2019.” There were 751 incidents of vandalism and 31 incidents of assault, with no fatalities.

For many people both at DePaul and in the Chicagoland area, it is hard to believe that added measures may be needed to keep worshippers safe.

“In foreign synagogues, they had to have security guards, and I never dreamed that would be necessary in America,” Resnicoff said.

“I think it’s a sad reality where I can walk into a synagogue and worship any holiday and I have to think, ‘where’s the nearest exit?’ or ‘where am I going to hide?’” Kagan said. “I’ve seen bouncers checking names outside synagogues. I’m coming here for prayer, not a club.”

While antisemitic attacks like the one witnessed at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville serve as prominent examples of the kinds of uphill battles Jews face in terms of safety, many of Chabad’s members don’t see much coming of this hostage standoff.

“I don’t see anything really changing,” Rozhko said.