Rabbi at Center of Texas Hostage Standoff Had Resigned in Fall Amid Discord

'They would not tell us why they want him to resign,' one congregant says of the rabbi who led the escape from the gunman

The Forward
Robin Washington
Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker of Congregation Beth Israel makes a statement to the media after at White's Chapel United Methodist Church in Southlake, Texas, Monday.
Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker of Congregation Beth Israel makes a statement to the media after at White's Chapel United Methodist Church in Southlake, Texas, Monday.Credit: Rebecca Slezak /AP
The Forward
Robin Washington

The Texas rabbi celebrated around the world as a hero for freeing himself and several congregants from a gunman in an 11-hour synagogue siege is set to leave the community in June, the Forward has learned, having resigned last fall amid debate about whether his contract would be renewed.

The circumstances that led to Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker’s departure are somewhat unclear. Anna Eisen, a co-founder of Colleyville’s Congregation Beth Israel, said Wednesday morning that it was a mutual agreement of the rabbi and the synagogue’s president. But a congregant and former cantorial soloist for the shul said Cytron-Walker had resigned after the board of directors voted in October to recommend his contract not be renewed.

Rabbi Ben Sternman of Adat Chaverim in Plano, Texas, part of a foursome of area Reform rabbis including Cytron-Walker that meets weekly, said that in October, “he showed up for lunch one week and he was looking very upset.”

Cytron-Walker, who is known for his social-justice advocacy and interfaith bridge building, has led the synagogue, which sits among the new mansions and manicured lawns of the booming Dallas-Fort Worth corridor, since 2006. Marta Johnson, who had worked in recent years as High Holiday soloist at the synagogue, said “a lot of people in the congregation are pretty upset” about his impending departure.

“It’s kind of shocking,” said Johnson, whose own work with the synagogue was discontinued. “He’s being held as a hero internationally.”

Eisen, Beth Israel’s first president, said that “as a congregation we have been very heartbroken and distraught, adding: “I myself have begged him to stay, but I also realize that he has given us 16 years of his life.”

Cytron-Walker, who told the Forward and other outlets on Monday that he had engineered the escape by throwing a chair at the gunman, could not be reached for comment.

No congregational vote

Rabbi Sternman said both Cytron-Walker and Congregation Beth Israel entered “placement” with the Union for Reform Judaism – the rabbi seeking another pulpit and the congregation seeking an interim rabbi – in November. The synagogue’s online calendar listed meetings for a rabbinic search committee on January 9 and January 13 – just two days before the attack.

Rabbi Sternman said his friend had not been looking to move to a larger synagogue or bigger city. “I know he wants to stay with a smaller congregation,” he said. Asked whether this weekend’s events might alter Cytron-Walker’s plans, a Reform leader with knowledge of the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity said: “I don’t think anything has changed.”

Johnson, the cantorial soloist, and others said they learned of the board’s decision at the beginning of November but did not know what conflicts or issues might have led up to it.

Police stand in front of the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, January 16, 2022.Credit: Brandon Wade / AP

“They would not tell us why they want him to resign,” said Sandy Barenholtz-Silverman, who attended Beth Israel and described Cytron-Walker as “beloved” and “amazing with people, from babies to seniors.” She also lauded his social activism and interfaith work with Muslims and Christians.

Emails to the congregation’s president, Michael Fifner, and a dozen board members inquiring about the situation were not immediately returned Wednesday morning.

A man named Itamar Gelbman posted to Facebook on Saturday that he had left Congregation Beth Israel because Cytron-Walker referred to Israel as an apartheid state and did not allow guns in the shul, a claim picked up by right-wing media but not otherwise confirmed. Gelbman posted again on Sunday, saying that others had also left the congregation, and that the rabbi had not been attentive when Gelbman’s wife had breast cancer.

The specific events leading up to Cytron-Walker’s resignation are murky. In many synagogues, there is a board committee on hiring that would recommend whether to renew a rabbinical contract, followed by a board vote and then a congregational vote. But Eisen said that at Beth Israel, only the full congregation votes.

“This year, when the contract came and was going to go to renewal, the rabbi asked for there not to be a vote,” she said. “So whatever rumors there are that he was fired are blatantly untrue.”

Eisen said the rabbi’s resignation “was a mutual agreement with the president,” adding: “By the time I spoke to him about it, he was already exploring new, exciting opportunities.”

Eisen said she spoke to Cytron-Walker after a letter signed by him and Fifner went out to the congregation. “I said, ‘You haven’t resigned.’ He said, ‘No, that was my resignation letter.’”

She added: “I can assure you he would have been unanimously voted to stay.”

‘My hero’

Cytron-Walker, who grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, was Colleyville’s first full-time rabbi – and it was his first pulpit after his 2006 ordination from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. The congregation grew out of a 1998 chavurah that started with a Yom Kippur break-fast, and was officially incorporated in 1999 with 25 member-families. It opened its modest building with a 160-seat sanctuary in 2005.

Saturday’s crisis began in the middle of Shabbat services, which were livestreaming via Facebook, when an apparently homeless British man who the rabbi had earlier welcomed with a cup of tea pulled out a gun. The man demanded the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani woman serving an 86-year sentence for terrorism, and said he had come to the synagogue because it was close to the prison where she is being held and because “Jews control the world.”

The 11-hour ordeal, which ended with the gunman’s death but no other injuries, drew more than 200 law-enforcement personnel to Colleyville and international headlines. Cytron-Walker gave emotional interviews on Monday to the Forward, CBS News, The New York Times and other outlets, and that evening led an interfaith solidarity service in nearby Southlake, Texas.

He has fielded phone calls from President Joe Biden and Israel Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, and spoken to Rabbi Rick Jacobs, head of the Union for Reform Judaism, and Rabbi Angela Buchdahl of Manhattan’s Central Synagogue, who the hostages had called during the crisis at the demand of the gunman.

“I’m not going to say that there’s anything special about me,” Cytron-Walker said in the Forward interview. “We were very fortunate.”

Rabbi Geoffrey Dennis of Congregation Kol-Ami in Flower Mound, Texas, part of Cytron-Walker’s weekly lunch foursome, declined to comment on his friend’s departure, saying Wednesday morning: “We’ll just have to let the congregation and Rabbi Charlie sort that out.”

Dennis had said in an interview on Tuesday that he looked up to his colleague, calling him “my hero.”

“His performance under stress was so poised and effective,” Dennis said. “I am envious. I am aghast.”

For his own part, Cytron-Walker said in an interview Monday morning that, at that point, he had been in limited communication with members of his congregation since the standoff. The healing service that he led Monday evening was meant, in part, to give him a chance to connect with the Beth Israel community, and afterward, he gave extended hugs to people at the front of the church and then spent a long time at the head of a receiving line of well-wishers.

“The whole experience — this whole thing — has just been so overwhelming that I really, I’m still processing it myself,” he said Monday morning, “so I would say there’s been some communication but there hasn’t been enough.”

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