Rabbi Fuchs Reflects
What a shocking surprise it was to discover that one of the four hostages in the horrific event in Colleyville, Texas, was a former Bar Mitzvah and Confirmation student of mine, Jeff Cohen.
I called Jeff, and we spoke for nearly 45 minutes. He had always been a bright, serious, and critically thinking student who asked probing questions and made astute observations. Those qualities that I noticed in him as an adolescent were very apparent in the 57-year-old man with whom I spoke on the phone.
We spoke about the Torah portion, the Holiness Code from Leviticus, chapter 19, that we studied together long ago. We observed how its ringing proclamation, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” (Leviticus 19:18) played out in Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker’s action in “welcoming the stranger” into the synagogue and offering him a cup of tea.
We talked about the sad conflict that sometimes exists between the Torah’s ideals and the practical realities of the world in which we live. After Confirmation and high school graduation, Jeff studied at Carnegie Mellon University and became “an engineer like my dad.” He had worked for NASA as a Systems Analyst.
I recalled that he, his parents and his sisters rarely missed a Shabbat service when he was young and that, in addition, his parents availed themselves of almost every Adult Learning opportunity our synagogue, Temple Isaiah in Columbia, Maryland, offered.
“All those things we grew up with,” he noted, “I still do. I can’t count how many times over the years I have quoted you,” he continued (making my day), “about the Jewish imperative to do what we can to make the world a better place, but as far as belief goes, I think of myself as an observant Reform Jewish Atheist.”
To clarify, he added that as a scientist he finds belief in God difficult, but that he finds meaning and comfort in the rhythms of Jewish life.
Blow by blow, Jeff then recalled the horrific eleven hours of terror he endured. He pointed out emphatically, “We were not rescued, and we were not released. We escaped.” Jeff surreptitiously dialed 911 when the gunmen turned away, so that the police would be alert to the situation. “Yes,” he added, “there were moments when I feared things would end very badly.” Then Jeff spoke of the climactic moment when the gunman ordered the hostages to kneel. “I gave him my most hardened glare and mouthed the word, ‘No!’” Finally, he shared that when the gunman put down the weapon, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker threw a chair at him. The three hostages ran for their lives to the exit.
“Now that it’s over, “I asked him, “what are your takeaways?” He answered:
Active shooter training saved our lives.
The FBI did a great job of keeping the gunman talking. He was happy to talk.
The gunman really thought Jews have “all the power,” and so the way to get the Al-Kaida operative out of prison was to take Jewish hostages.
As I hung up the phone, I reflected: After the Tree of Life shooting in Pittsburgh in October 2018, it seemed like the entire non-Jewish world rose up in horror. Three plus years later, after Poway, Jersey City and many other anti-semitic incidents, it seems, “not so much.” Attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions have become expectations, not surprises. Already tight synagogue budgets are stretched to, and in some cases beyond, the breaking point by the amount we must spend on building security.
We are at a difficult crossroads in Jewish life, and I admit I do not have the solution. But the one prescription I will offer is the last observation Jeff Cohen made to me when we spoke: “We must stand up and challenge anti-semitic stereotypes. When we don’t challenge them, people latch onto them, and they proliferate.”