Jews around the world are still reeling from the horrors of the hostage situation at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. In Baltimore, the community is coming together to support each other after this tragic event.
On Jan. 15, Malik Faisal Akram took Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and three congregants hostage during a Shabbat service at a synagogue in a suburb of Fort Worth, Texas. The service was livestreamed, so congregants and others watched the attack unfold from their homes. After 11 hours, the hostages escaped, and an FBI SWAT team killed Akram.
“People are very grateful that what happened last Saturday [ended] without physical injury to any of the hostages,” said Howard Libit, the executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council.
The hostage situation has prompted an increased focus on security for Jewish organizations. BJC has helped provide synagogues with a refresher course on security procedures and active shooter trainings.
“It’s a particularly timely moment to look at what happened and see, are there lessons to be learned?” Libit said.
He said that this question is asked whenever a tragedy happens, such as the Pittsburgh and Poway synagogue shootings in 2018 and 2019, and this time is no different.
BJC has been working, along with national organizations like The Jewish Federations of North America, to advocate for an increase in funding for the Federal Homeland Security grant program. This program funds “security enhancements at nonprofit institutions, including many synagogues,” Libit said.
“I think the security concerns are going to remain for a long time when events like that really get seared in our minds,” Libit said.
The JCC of Greater Baltimore and Beth El Congregation of Baltimore are just a couple of the organizations working to address security concerns.
The JCC is working with security consultants and two different security companies to keep their families safe.
“Anytime something happens like this, it just gives us another opportunity to take a look at our security protocols,” said Barak Hermann, the CEO of the JCC of Greater Baltimore.
Beth El Congregation has been closely working with Defender One, their campus security vendor, to review safety measures. Due to rising COVID-19 cases, their building is currently closed, which lessens security concerns, but their preschool is still open.
For future safety, the synagogue has scheduled quarterly trainings for the board, staff and congregants over the next year. They are committed to staying vigilant and not becoming complacent once discussion about this event dies down, said Ben Wachstein, executive director of Beth El.
However, they do not want this to overshadow any of the synagogue’s other activities or work.
“The key is that we have to focus on it but not make it everything that we’re doing,” Wachstein said.
In addition to addressing safety and security, many organizations have worked to combat the rampant antisemitism in this country, especially after an event that fanned the flames of hate.
Some organizations have had strong initiatives to combat antisemitism for years now. The BJC has had an antisemitism task force since November 2020, and Beth El is communicating with the Anti-Defamation League to make resources available for training and informational purposes.
In addition, the Institute for Islamic, Christian, and Jewish Studies focuses on relationships and dialogue between religious communities in Baltimore, concepts that are so important now, said Melissa Zieve, the director of operation at ICJS.
Zieve said that it is important for the Jewish and Muslim communities to come together during this time and in general.
“How we best serve both the Jewish and the Muslim community, and all religious communities, is by learning more about each other, and by knowing each other,” she said.
However, Zieve emphasized that focus on interreligious relationships cannot only happen during a crisis; it needs to be a priority all the time. ICJS does this year round by offering religious courses, monthly events and fellowships.
Wachstein has said in his experience, the relationship between the local Baltimore Jewish and Muslim communities has been “lovely.”
“Every time there’s a situation like this that takes place, whether it affects the Muslim community or the Jewish community, we have each other’s backs,” Wachstein said.
Libit said the best way to fight antisemitism and religious hate is for people to not live in fear and to continue to pray, attend services and participate in events as they normally would.
“We’re not going to be scared away by incidents like this,” Libit said. “Our faith will endure.”
Correction 1/27/22: An earlier version of this story had an incorrect name for the synagogue in Colleyville, Texas. The name is Congregation Beth Israel.