The rabbi who was taken hostage at a Texas synagogue said Monday that he and two members of his congregation were able to escape after he threw a chair at the gunman who had held them captive for 11 hours.
Speaking publicly for the first time since Saturday’s incident at Congregation Beth Israel, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, 46, said he made the decision to run as their tormentor was melting down after hours of negotiating with law enforcement.
“I made sure that the two gentlemen who were still with me were ready to go,” he said on “CBS This Morning.” “The exit was not too far away. I told them to go.”
Then the rabbi reached for the only available weapon.
“I threw a chair at the gunman, and I headed for the door,” Cytron-Walker said. “And all three of us were able to get out without even a shot being fired.”
It was only afterward that police were able to enter the Reform synagogue, which is in the Fort Worth suburb of Colleyville, and confront the 44-year-old gunman, Malik Faisal Akram.
Akram, a British citizen, was fatally shot by the FBI Hostage Rescue Team, according to a senior law enforcement official.
But Cytron-Walker was being hailed as a hero by longtime friends for his cool handling of the “terrifying” situation.
“He is the most unassuming, egoless person you could ever meet,” Joel Schwitzer of the American Jewish Committee said. “He is the personification of nice guy.”
Cytron-Walker is also the last person Schwitzer ever imagined would throw a chair at a dangerous gunman.
“He’s an average-sized person,” he said. “When I heard he’d thrown a chair at the guy, I was so impressed. He’s a hero. There’s no other way to describe him.”
Prior to Saturday, the most athletic thing Cytron-Walker had boasted about was taking part in a “24-hour dance marathon,” according to his official biography.
Also, while still a student at the University of Michigan (he graduated in 1998), he spent 48 hours living as a homeless person, his biography says.
Originally from Lansing, Michigan, Cytron-Walker is a married father of two daughters who became the Reform synagogue’s first full-time rabbi in 2006 after learning the ropes as a rabbinical student while serving congregations in Florida, Michigan and Ohio.
“He’s very passionate about interfaith outreach,” Schwitzer said.
Cytron-Walker has also been involved in reaching out to the LGBT community, according to his official bio.
Before that, he worked at a civil rights organization in Detroit and helped run a soup kitchen in Amherst, Massachusetts. He is a graduate of the Hebrew Union College — Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati.
Cytron-Walker was in the midst of Saturday services when Akram barged inside the synagogue.
While the details of what exactly happened next have not yet been clarified, Akram had Cytron-Walker call a rabbi in New York City to say he was being held hostage and to pass on the gunman’s demand for the release of Aafia Siddiqui.
Siddiqui is being held in a Texas federal prison after being convicted in 2010 of attempting to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan.
After his escape, Cytron-Walker wrote that he was “filled with appreciation” for those who offered their support and law enforcement officers who helped them to escape unharmed.
“I am grateful for my family,” he wrote. “I am grateful for the CBI Community, the Jewish Community, the Human Community. I am grateful that we made it out. I am grateful to be alive.”
Cytron-Walker also credited the security training he’s received in the past from the FBI, Colleyville police and civilian organizations for helping him survive.
“In the last hour of our hostage crisis, the gunman became increasingly belligerent and threatening,” he said. “Without the instruction we received, we would not have been prepared to act and flee when the situation presented itself.”