texas rabbi esacapes hostage situation
Rabbi recounts moment he escaped from synagogue gunman
04:11 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, and special adviser on security to the Anti-Defamation League. He previously was the rabbi of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

I will never forget the feeling of having a gun pointed at me. It was January 15, 2022, and I was leading morning services at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas.

The gunman shouted his demand to speak to a prominent female rabbi because this situation, he said, required a “woman’s touch.” I was scared – for my congregants and for myself – and I hoped and prayed that we would be able to get out of the situation alive.

Wrapped up in all the emotions of this nightmare was the shock that this person had taken us hostage and could kill us at any time – all because he believed with every part of his being that Jews controlled everything: the government, the media, the financial sector.

Believing in such offensive fabrications is nothing new. For too long, too many people have believed and acted on the most ludicrous ideas about the Jewish people. Individuals and governments, believing the worst of these lies, destroyed or expelled entire Jewish communities time and time again.

Words matter, and some people really will believe anything. The gunman, indoctrinated with antisemitic lies, traveled from England to New York to Dallas to Colleyville. He wanted a convicted terrorist released, he thought Jews could make it happen – and he told us repeatedly that he “loved death more than we loved life.” In his mind, he was ready to die a “martyr” based on these absurdities.

That’s why I’m so concerned when I see politicians, celebrities and other public figures sharing such lies or elevating others who spread them. Social media makes it too easy to spread messages of hate, and the situation is exacerbated when social media companies allow such hatred, when identified, to remain on their sites.

After the hostage situation ended – and we all escaped without physical injury – I held out hope that the attention the incident received could have a positive impact. I could find some comfort if what happened to our synagogue raised awareness and helped combat the spread of antisemitism.

Sadly, though, recent events indicate that trends are not moving in the right direction. According to the Anti-Defamation League, there were fewer than 1,000 reported antisemitic incidents in 2015. Last year, there were over 2,700 antisemitic incidents. As hateful rhetoric against Jews has increased, hateful actions against Jews have followed.

That, of course, is exactly what history teaches us to expect. And Jewish leaders have continually pushed back when we see antisemitism in the public sphere.

We learn from the great sage Hillel, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I’m only for myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” The power and relevance of this often-quoted teaching provides focus for all of us in these moments.

We have to stand up for ourselves – and we also must understand that the Jewish community is not alone in our fears and concerns.

After we escaped from the hostage situation, I learned that American Muslims were terrified they would be associated with the hostage taker. I was thanked over and over again by Muslim friends and strangers for sharing the truth – stressing that the gunman represented himself alone, in addition to describing all the love and support that we had received from the Muslim community throughout the years and especially in our moment of need.

Jews don’t have a monopoly on suffering. America’s past is filled with horrors against innocent people – from the genocide of indigenous peoples to chattel slavery, from internment camps to forced sterilizations, and the list goes on. Even today, we’re still struggling with the denial of rights, the denial of protections and the denial of dignity, all while hate-filled rhetoric and actions persist.

I keep wondering what it will take for more of us to understand how much we need each other. “If not now, when?”

This past year I’ve had an opportunity to meet many people who have experienced violence and hatred firsthand. I’ve shared love and hugs with people from all different backgrounds who have lost family or narrowly survived an attack. Jewish, Black, Asian, LGBTQ, Sikh, Muslim – it doesn’t matter which identity, it can, and it has happened, to all of us.

Get our free weekly newsletter

  • Sign up for CNN Opinion’s newsletter.
  • Join us on Twitter and Facebook

    In that spirit, I’m offering gratitude to everyone who has spoken out against antisemitism, including powerful statements from President Joe Biden, second gentleman Doug Emhoff and so many others. It’s been a particularly rough year for the Jewish community, and we need all the help we can get right now – and into the future.

    In that spirit, we in the Jewish community strive to say, with honesty and integrity, we’ve got the backs of all who face discrimination. You matter to us. And if you’re tired of being the only one to stand up for yourselves, we hear you and you can count on us.

    We have to care for our own, but we cannot only care for our own. If we hope to live in a world with less injustice and more understanding, less violence and more security, we all have to do better.