the great escape

I need to escape from the news, which seems to be all bad these days. I need a break from the voting rights act being voted down, the latest on January 6th, Omicron, the Ukraine. I keep up minimally just to stay informed but I really am just skimming the stories as I plot my escapes, a midday dreamy cup of sipping chocolate, Trader Joe’s rich dark chocolate that we stir into hot oat milk; a nighttime rewatching of His Girl Friday with Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in a perfect match of zingy crackling dialogue and comic timing. Grant oozes charisma and Russell is his equal.

The one news story that gripped me this week was about a far more daring escape, of hostages held by a terrorist at a synagogue outside of Dallas, a tale notable as much for the horror of the circumstances as for the bravery and decency of the rabbi and other hostages.

It all started with a small act of kindness, when the attacker was let in to the synagogue, being offered a cup of hot tea to warm him up on a cold morning. While leading prayers, the rabbi, known to his congregants as Rabbi Charlie, heard a click that he recognized as possibly that of a gun. When he finished his prayers he stepped down from the bima to talk to the man he had offered the tea, telling him that he was welcome to stay for the service or if he had come in just to get warm, he was welcome to leave, that he didn’t have to worry about being rude. While they were talking the man pulled out a gun. The hostage taking was viewed by congregants watching via livestream, who were able to report the event.

For the next eleven hours the rabbi and several other congregants were held hostage. Rabbi Charlie described those hours, how they tried to keep their attacker calm, praising him for his compassion about how well they were treated. “We wanted him to see us as human beings.”

At one point the terrorist asked for some juice and right after the rabbi came and brought it over he picked up a chair and threw it at him and told the others – who already, as they learned from training, were situated as close as possible to the exit – to run out of the room, and then he quickly followed.

Although a small synagogue outside of a major metropolitan area, Rabbi Charlie and the other hostages were well prepared for the event after years of security training prompted from threats to synagogues. Acts of sudden violence have become a part of American life. Jewish leaders and congregants are more actively participating in shooter drills and learning how to handle a hostage situation and how to cope with terrorism. The rabbi compared these courses to CPR training, noting that it is rarely needed but crucial when the moment arises.

Rabbi Charlie was known for his interfaith work, especially with the local Muslim community. The Dallas Morning News told the story of a Muslim imam, the prayer leader of a mosque, who offered to be of assistance to the negotiators. A connection was made with them, and he was able to provide spiritual support and counsel. “He stayed until the hostages were freed, choosing to place his commitment to the safety of the community above all else.”
Like the rabbi, the imam was a reminder that there are people who have compassion and courage and faith in humankind, and who act on that faith.

The FBI is treating the attack as an act of terrorism targeting the Jewish community, and there remains a palpable fear of copycat attacks as other synagogues remain on high alert. These are frightening and difficult times, and synagogues and mosques and other houses of worship grapple with how to remain a sanctuary while keeping congregants safe.

Rabbi Charlie is safe if shaken, forever changed and yet steadfast in his beliefs. When asked what he would do if there were a next time, he said he’d do the same, that he would welcome a stranger or someone who wasn’t Jewish but was curious because he wanted them to feel at home.. “And I want them to know that they are going to belong. Hospitality means the world.”

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