On Saturday, January 15, 2022, there was an 11-hour standoff at the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, in which the rabbi, Charlie Cytron-Walker and three congregants were taken hostage by Malik Faisal Akram, a UK citizen. The ordeal ended after the rabbi threw a chair at their assailant, allowing the group to escape through a nearby exit. As new information about this story continues to emerge, the New York Times article ‘Grateful to Be Alive’: What We Know About the Synagogue Hostage Rescue provides an updated summary.
As the Jewish community reels from yet another attack on one of our most sacred spaces, teachers within Jewish educational settings need the tools and language to help students grapple with corresponding emotions and what it means to live as a Jew in the United States. Educators will need to be sensitive to the fears and anxieties that may be present for students as they watch the news or listen to the conversations occurring in their homes, synagogues, and among their friends.
This act of terror is part of the rising climate of antisemitism across the globe. Schools and synagogues are constantly reevaluating their security protocols and safety measures, especially after such incidents. Leadership, lay, and professional staff regularly receive training from local police, the FBI, the Anti-Defamation League, and other Jewish groups on how to respond to threats and acts of violence. These practices have unfortunately become a normal part of American Jewish life and a precondition to freely worship or attend a Jewish school.
This Teaching Idea is designed to help guide an initial class discussion on the hostage situation at Congregation Beth Israel of Colleyville, Texas. The activities below support students to process their feelings, explore American Jewish identity, and learn about the long history of antisemitism.
Start With Yourself
Self-reflection is important preparation for facilitating emotionally challenging conversations. As educators, we have to make time to process our own feelings and become aware of the way our own identities and experiences shape our perspectives. Read the “Start with Yourself” section on page 2 of our Fostering Civil Discourse guide. Then reflect on the following questions:
- How have you been affected by the events of the past week? What emotions does the news of the hostage situation at Congregation Beth Israel of Colleyville, Texas, raise for you? What questions are you grappling with? How might your own personal identity and experiences impact your response?
- As you enter the conversation with your students, how will you take into account your students’ Jewish identities and how your students may have personally experienced antisemitism?
Prepare for Class
Consider the ways in which your own students may have been impacted by the recent news. What support might your students need and what resources in your school, including counselors and social workers, could help provide this support?
Before discussing the news from Texas, it is important to revisit with students any class contract you have created together to ensure that the classroom is a safe and brave space for difficult conversations. If you have not created a class contract, plan to begin with a brief contracting activity before discussing the news.
Introduce and Discuss What Happened
Share with students a summary of what happened at Congregation Beth Israel of Colleyville, Texas, from a trusted news source. This Washington Post article provides a detailed account of the events. Either read the article together as a class or give students time to read it privately.
Allow time for students to name what stands out to them from this news story or in other news of this past weekend events and then to process and reflect, perhaps writing in their journals and then sharing some thoughts with a partner. You might use the following writing prompts:
- The synagogue attack in Colleyville, Texas, is disturbing and painful to learn about. It prompts us to ask many questions, some of which may not have an answer. What questions does this event raise for you? What feelings does it provoke?
- How do you see this event affecting people in your home, in your school, and in your community?
After students have had some time to write privately in their journals, have them read “It’s a Courageous Thing to Do.”
After students have had time to read this passage, you might ask them to share some of their thoughts using the Think, Pair, Share strategy. Or, if you do not think students are ready for sharing their thoughts verbally, you can ask them to add a comment about one or more questions to a graffiti board. Students can then volunteer to share thoughts and observations after reading through the variety of responses.
Acknowledge that these are heavy conversations about difficult topics and remind students that the individual and collective choices we make can move us toward creating a more compassionate and tolerant world. Bring closure to the conversation by reading the following quote by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks:
I am proud to be part of a people who, though scarred and traumatised, never lost their humour or their faith, their ability to laugh at present troubles and still believe in ultimate redemption; who saw human history as a journey, and never stopped traveling and searching.
Facing History offers a variety of resources to help students deepen their understanding of the history and impact of antisemitism, as well as how we might respond to acts of hatred and bigotry that threaten our democracy.
Learn About the History and Present Reality of Antisemitism
The lesson The Roots and Impact of Antisemitism from our unit Teaching Holocaust and Human Behavior focuses on the question, “What is antisemitism, and how has it impacted Jews in the past and today?”
For further exploration of this topic, refer to our online resources Old Hatred, New Paradigms: Combating Antisemitism in the Twenty-First Century and Antisemitism and Religious Intolerance.
Learn About Examples of Upstanding Against Antisemitism and Bigotry
These resources help guide lessons about how each of us can help to bring about a more humane, just, and compassionate world and build a more inclusive democracy. The readings below have particular resonance right now. Used singly or together, they can help students consider the values, tools, and actions that protect human rights, establish a sense of safety and dignity, and strengthen communities.
- Not in Our Town: Residents of Billings, Montana, banded together to stand up to racist and antisemitic violence in their town: Intolerance, hatred, and violence test the strength of a community. How the members of a community respond is one measure of its citizens' commitment to democracy. This reading includes a companion video and lesson plan.
- Talking About Religion: Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith Youth Core, talks about his failure to respond to antisemitism in high school and how this experience of being a bystander informed his commitment to pluralism.
- Walking with the Wind: Congressman and activist John Lewis tells a story from his childhood to explore how we can work together to create a better world:
“. . . America itself felt as if it might burst at the seams—so much tension, so many storms. But the people of conscience never left the house. They never ran away. They stayed, they came together, and they did the best they could, clasping hands and moving toward the corner of the house that was the weakest.”