OVER the course of a harrowing 12 hours on Saturday, the entire world found out just what the Jews of Colleyville, Texas, think of their hometown rabbi.
“Our rabbi is a wonderful human being,” Ellen Smith, who grew up at Congregation Beth Israel, said about Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker during an online vigil while he was being held hostage inside the synagogue building.
Cytron-Walker was leading Shabbat services when a man took him and three others hostage, reportedly in an effort to free a woman who was convicted of attempting to kill American military personnel. The crisis, which streamed online for some time before being taken down, drew the world’s attention to a rabbi who is in many ways synonymous with the synagogue he leads.
Congregation Beth Israel was founded in 1998 as an informal community in a rapidly growing suburb of Fort Worth, located just miles from the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. Cytron-Walker, who joined the Reform congregation in 2006 after graduating from rabbinical school, has been its only full-time rabbi.
In that role, he has tackled the everyday challenges of synagogue leadership — seeking out a virtual program when COVID-19 forced Beth Israel’s Hebrew school to go online, for example — while also becoming well known in the area for his interfaith and social justice work.
He has made friends everywhere he has gone, locally and across the extended network of Reform and Conservative rabbis who poured out their recollections of studying and working with him over the years. Colleyville’s police chief called Cytron-Walker a close personal friend. Even the man who attacked the synagogue praised him, saying on the live-streamed audio that the rabbi had welcomed him into the building when he knocked on the door asking whether the synagogue was a shelter. “I bonded with him,” the man said. “I really like him.”
Cytron-Walker is married to Adena Cytron-Walker, a vice president of a Fort Worth organisation focused on diversity with whom he remains “completely in love,” according to his biography on Beth Israel’s website; the couple has two daughters.
Cytron-Walker grew up in Michigan, where he leaned into Jewish life at an early age. His family belonged to Congregation Shaarey Zedek in East Lansing. While in high school, he was president of both Lansing’s temple youth group and the National Federation of Temple Youth’s Michigan region.
In college at the University of Michigan, Cytron-Walker was involved with the school’s Hillel chapter. He also spent a handful of evenings with Ann Arbor’s homeless population to better understand their plight.
His commitment to social justice has extended throughout his career: between graduating from college and entering rabbinical school, he worked for a variety of social services organisations including Focus: HOPE, a Detroit nonprofit that provides education, job training and other services to underrepresented groups; and an assistant directing role with the Amherst Survival Center, a soup kitchen and food pantry in western Massachusetts.
“Charlie has devoted his life personally and professionally to caring for those in need,” said longtime friend Rabbi Aaron Starr .
His thesis in rabbinical school, where he received an award for his leadership on LGBTQ issues, was on “Jewish Service-Learning.”
Cytron-Walker is well-known in Colleyville for his commitment to interfaith work. He serves on the steering committee of a local interfaith organisation headed by a Unitarian Universalist church, and local Muslim leaders spoke out supporting him on Saturday. One, Alia Salem, the founder of an advocacy group exposing abuse among Muslim faith leaders and a self-proclaimed “vocal supporter” of the movement to free the woman supported by the hostage-taker, said on Twitter that she has been a friend of Cytron-Walker and his wife for 15 years.
“They are the kindest, most gentle, and loving people who have been absolutely rock-solid friends and allies not only to me but to the entire Muslim community through thick and thin,” Salem wrote.
Cytron-Walker’s mother, Judy Walker, is still a member of Congregation Shaarey Zedek in East Lansing, and the congregation’s rabbi, Amy Bigman, was with her on Saturday as news of the hostage situation emerged.
“I’ve known Charlie since he was in high school,” Bigman told JTA. “He is quite simply a mensch.”
She also offered perhaps the only unflattering insight shared about Cytron-Walker all day — as part of a prayer for his safe release.
“He’s the worst singer in the world. He cannot hold a tune to save his life,” Smith said. “I hope that he’ll get a chance to pray off-tune very loudly at another Shabbat service.”
Shortly before 10 pm, more than 11 hours after Congregation Beth Israel’s Shabbat services began, Smith and the rest of the world learned that that would in fact be the case. Cytron-Walker was free, unharmed, along with those he had been praying with that morning.
Following his release, Cytron-Walker posted on Facebook, “I am thankful and filled with appreciation for all of the vigils and prayers and love and support, all of the law enforcement and first responders who cared for us, all of the security training that helped save us.
“I am grateful for my family. I am grateful for the CBI Community, the Jewish Community, the Human Community. I am grateful that we made it out. I am grateful to be alive.”