Jewish leaders urge to attend worship after hostage siege
On the eve of her 100th birthday on Saturday, Ruth Salton told her daughter she was somehow going to Friday night Shabbat services at Congregation Beth Israel, just days after a man gunman expressing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories held four worshipers hostage for 10 hours at the Fort. Worth Synagogue.
“I want to support my people,” said Salton, a Holocaust survivor. She says she told her daughter “if she doesn’t take me, I’ll go alone, because I feel like I belong there. I’m Jewish, it’s my faith and I support it.
She is far from alone.
Jewish leaders across the United States are calling for strong attendance at worship services this weekend in defiance of anti-Semitic acts such as last weekend’s hostage siege at Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas.
“WILL YOU COME TO THE SHUL THIS SHABBAT…IN CHALLENGE/JOY/SEE FELLOW JEWS,” Emory University history professor Deborah Lipstadt tweeted, using a traditional term for the synagogue. She is President Biden’s nominee as special envoy to monitor and combat anti-Semitism abroad.
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers of Congregation Tree of Life in Pittsburgh, who survived the Oct. 27, 2018, mass shooting at his synagogue, echoed the call. After a gunman killed 11 worshipers from three congregations at the synagogue in the deadliest anti-Semitic hate crime in US history, people packed synagogues across the country the following weekend.
“Don’t let anti-Semites terrorize us and win by keeping us out of our sacred spaces,” Myers wrote on his blog. “Show up at the synagogue and declare loud and clear by your presence that you will not be driven into hiding. … (Anti-Semites) will not drive us out of our homes. Not now. Never.”
Authorities say Malik Faisal Akram, a British national, took the four people who were at Congregation Beth Israel hostage last Saturday. It called for the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a Pakistani neuroscientist convicted of attempting to kill US troops in Afghanistan and serving a long sentence in a prison in Fort Worth, 23 kilometers southwest of Colleyville.
The hostages said Akram cited anti-Semitic stereotypes, believing Jews could wield power over President Joe Biden to free Siddiqui.
The siege ended after the last hostage fled the synagogue and an FBI SWAT team rushed in. Akram was killed by multiple gunshot wounds. The Tarrant County Medical Examiner called the case a homicide, which under Texas law indicates a person was killed by another, but does not necessarily mean the murder was a felony .
Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, who was among the hostages, said Thursday the congregation was “doing their best to heal.”
“We are going to have services on Shabbat night. We are going to have services on Shabbat morning. We’re going to have a religious school on Sunday,” Cytron-Walker said during a Thursday webinar hosted by the Anti-Defamation League.
“I stand before you with great gratitude just to be alive,” he added during a press conference on Friday.
Cytron-Walker encouraged members of the Jewish community “to have a Shabbat shalom, a Sabbath of peace.”
“God willing, we are able to find a sense of wholeness with our families, with our communities. … And I would extend that not just to the Jewish community, I would extend that to all communities,” he said.
Congregation Beth Israel services this weekend were held at a different location because the investigation at the synagogue is ongoing. Participation was limited to members.
“I expect it to be emotional because we haven’t had a chance to come together and express or experience our emotions,” said Anna Eisen, Salton’s daughter. “I’m ready to kiss people.”
Rabbi Noah Farkas, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, said congregations in his area are preparing for greater attendance and taking coronavirus precautions.
“In the face of a new wave of anti-Semitism, where Jews are threatened online, forced to prove themselves on campuses and are afraid to eat out, we must not let the fear our enemies want to instill in us define us” , he said on Friday. He called on Jews everywhere to “show the world that we are not afraid to live in a Jewish way.”
Many Jewish leaders said the hostage-taking was an example of a larger increase in anti-Semitic acts. The Anti-Defamation League says such incidents have reached their highest level since it began tracking them decades ago.
Eisen said the supportive response from local police and the FBI has made him “feel safer in my community and my country,” but it’s also important to fight anti-Semitism.
Eisen, co-author of books about her father’s Holocaust experience and her own as the daughter of Holocaust survivors, said synagogues in Nazi-controlled Europe “were attacked , and that people were attacked and killed, because of the same kind of hatred” that was shown last Saturday by the hostage taker.
“It’s not new to me. I hate anti-Semitism. I don’t understand why people feel that way about us,” Salton said.
At the same time, having survived the Holocaust and many other things, she is ready to celebrate her centenary.
“I would love to be 18, but since I’m 100, I’m grateful to have reached the point of living to 100,” she said.
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