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Heroes

Brave rabbi saved his congregants held at gunpoint by throwing a chair at the hostage-taker

congregation beth israel, texas synagogue hostages, rabbi charlie cytron-walker

Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker of Congregation Beth Israel.

A stranger knocked on the door of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas on Saturday morning shortly before Shabbat service. It was 20 degrees Fahrenheit outside, so Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, 46, made him a cup of tea. The rabbi and Malik Faisal Akram, 44, a British national, spoke for a few moments and then the rabbi went on to perform his regular 10 a.m. Shabbat prayers for his congregation.

When the rabbi turned his back to face Jerusalem, he heard a click come from the stranger. "And it turned out, that it was his gun," Cytron-Walker told CBS News.

Akram began screaming and a congregant, Jeffrey Cohen, the vice president of the synagogue's board of trustees, quickly pulled out his phone and dialed 911. A livestream broadcasting the prayer ceremony to congregants participating from home caught some of what Akram was shouting. "I'm gunned up. I'm ammo-ed up," he told someone he called nephew. "Guess what, I will die."

The FBI got word of the 911 call and quickly set up a perimeter around the synagogue. Akram took four people hostage, including the rabbi.


During the ordeal, Akram repeatedly demanded the release of a convicted terrorist, Aafia Siddiqui, who is serving an 86-year sentence at a Texas federal prison for an assault on U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.

Five hours into the ordeal, one hostage—a man—was released by Akram. Four hours later, Akram became increasingly enraged and the hostages knew that they had to take action to avoid being killed.

"In the last hour of our hostage crisis, the gunman became increasingly belligerent and threatening," Cytron-Walker said in a statement to CNN.

"When I saw an opportunity where he wasn't in a good position, I asked (and) made sure that the gentlemen who were still with me, that they were ready to go. The exit wasn't too far away," Cytron-Walker told CBS.

"I told them to go,” Cytron-Walker said. “I threw a chair at the gunman and I headed for the door. And all three of us were able to get out without even a shot being fired."

The rabbi attributes his ability to keep calm to his rabbinical training.

"As a part of training as clergy, we talk a lot about the idea of being a calm, non-anxious presence," he told CBS. "We do that in hospital rooms. We do that during the most difficult of individual moments. And I did the best I could to do that throughout the standoff."

Moments after the hostages were safely out of the synagogue, a group of armed law enforcement made their way into the building. The authorities confronted Akram, who was fatally shot by the FBI Hostage Rescue Team.

Joel Schwitzer of the American Jewish Committee was impressed by the heroic actions taken by the rabbi. “He is the most unassuming, egoless person you could ever meet. He is the personification of nice guy,” Schwitzer told Today. “He’s an average-sized person. When I heard he’d thrown a chair at the guy, I was so impressed. He’s a hero. There’s no other way to describe him.”

Cytron-Walker says he learned to think quickly from various trainings, including from the FBI.

"Over the years, my congregation and I have participated in multiple security courses from the Colleyville Police Department, the FBI, the Anti-Defamation League, and Secure Community Network," Cytron-Walker told CNN. "We are alive today because of that education."

On Sunday night, the rabbi gave a moving speech to his congregation assuring them "We will heal."

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