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How Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker’s training helped fellow hostages survive the Texas synagogue attack

<i>Congregation Beth Israel</i><br/>Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker's training helped fellow hostages survive the Texas synagogue attack.
Congregation Beth Israel
Congregation Beth Israel
Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker's training helped fellow hostages survive the Texas synagogue attack.

By Holly Yan, CNN

Behind Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker’s warm, disarming smile is a leader who’s willing to attack an armed man holding his congregants hostage.

On Saturday, a stranger knocked on the door of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. The rabbi, assuming the stranger needed shelter from the cold, invited him in and made him tea, Cytron-Walker told CBS on Monday.

But moments later, the stranger made clear he had a gun and took the rabbi and three others hostage. The ordeal dragged on for 11 hours, and the crisis was starting to deteriorate.

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

Fortunately, the rabbi knew what to do. He told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday he waited for the right moment before throwing a chair at the assailant — buying enough time for himself and two others to run out.

“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 said in the written statement.

“We are alive today because of that education.”

Attacks on Jewish people are on the rise, according to the Anti-Defamation League. While most anti-Semitic incidents involve harassment and vandalism, there have also been assaults and at least six fatal incidents since 2016.

One of the groups the rabbi credited for his training, Secure Community Network, is “the official homeland security and safety initiative of the organized Jewish community in North America,” the nonprofit’s website says.

“I encourage all Jewish congregations, religious groups, schools, and others to participate in active-shooter and security courses,” Cytron-Walker said.

“Without the instruction we received, we would not have been prepared to act and flee when the situation presented itself.”

How the daring getaway unfolded

Several hours into the crisis, one hostage was released — leaving the rabbi and two men in the synagogue with the gunman.

For the next four hours, Cytron-Walker and the other hostages had no idea when the gunman might start shooting.

“It didn’t look good. It didn’t sound good. … We were terrified,” the rabbi told CBS.

But he remembered his security training and waited for the right time to make a move against the gunman.

That moment came when the rabbi got the gunman a glass to drink.

“As he was drinking, the gun wasn’t in the best position and I thought this was our best chance, I needed to make sure the people who were still with me — that they were ready to go,” the rabbi said.

“And so there was a chair that was right in front of me. I told the guys to go, I picked it up and I threw it at him with all the adrenaline,” Cytron-Walker said. “It was absolutely terrifying and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be shot, and I did not hear a shot fired as I made it out the door. I was the last one out.”

While it was his bold move that helped the hostages escape, Cytron-Walker credited law enforcement and the security training.

“Those courses, that instruction, helped me to understand that you need to act in moments where your life is threatened. I would not have had the courage, I would not have had the knowhow or what to do without that instruction,” he told CNN. “I want people to understand, it doesn’t matter if you are in a synagogue, if you’re Jewish, if you’re Muslim, if you’re Christian, if you’re religious at all, it can happen in a shopping mall. Unfortunately this is the world that we’re living in.”

A history of helping others

Cytron-Walker, 46, became the first full-time rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in 2006. By then, he already had a long history of leadership and helping the community.

While still a student at the University of Michigan, Cytron-Walker spent 48 hours on the streets to help better understand homelessness, according to the congregation’s website.

He later became assistant director of the Amherst Survival Center in Massachusetts, which housed a food pantry, free store and soup kitchen for those in need.

Cytron-Walker will leave Congregation Beth Israel in June, spokeswoman Jennifer Farmer told CNN on Wednesday.

“The rabbi had been planning to transition. He’d been with the congregation for 16 years. While this transition was already planned, right now he is singularly focused on healing from the tragedy of the past weekend,” Farmer said.

In Texas, Cytron-Walker is well known for his outreach to community members — regardless of their background or religion, local leaders said.

The Islamic Center of Southlake said Cytron-Walker brought sweets to their Eid festival and attends festivities during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, former center president Shahzad Mahmud said.

Mahmud said the rabbi and his wife have been friends of the Islamic center since “day one.”

Cytron-Walker has won numerous awards, including one from QESHET: A Network of LGBT Reform Rabbis, his congregation said.

Cytron-Walker said his rabbinic training helped him remain calm during the 11-hour crisis.

“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.”

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CNN’s Carma Hassan, Joe Sutton, Eliott C. McLaughlin and Kacey Cherry contributed to this report.

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