What I Have Learned from Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker

I have not had the privilege of meeting Rabbi Cytron-Walker. However, I saw him being interviewed as well as speaking at the healing service last night. Here are seven things as a colleague that I have learned and/or which have been reinforced for me.

1.) More emergency preparedness trainings for all situations. The last training I have had was fall 2019 just before the High Holy Days. While we are blessed to have a Security Guard and Police Officer, we saw at Beth Israel how a person with a motive can sweet-talk their way past a guard. I was amazed that among the trainings Rabbi Cytron-Walker had was how to handle oneself in a hostage situation. I recognize the need for more trainings, included but not limited to active shooter/lockdown, hostage, fire and flooding, among others. I need to learn or relearn best practices for each of these situations as well as make sure my congregation has an emergency preparedness plan for all of the above that is regularly reviewed in staff meetings.

2.) Regularly reminding congregants where the exits are in the event of an emergency.

3.) Always working to deepen our relationship with local police officers and fire fighters. Making sure that they have a plan of our building. I have a panic button and have learned how to lock off the Sanctuary, yet it is equally important to have a strong relationship with local law enforcement.

4.) Staying calm when under attack. This is one of the most difficult of all. I don’t know how Rabbi Cytron-Walker remained calm with Malik Faisal Akram pointing a gun at him. His calm demeanor enabled one hostage to go free and worked to lower the tension in a situation that could have been much worse. He gave in to the gunman’s request to speak with Rabbi Buchdahl and was also calm when speaking with the FBI. Just thinking about what he went through makes me anxious so I don’t know how he did it.

5.) Looking for an opportunity to get out of the situation. When Rabbi Cytron-Walker saw Akram distracted, he has the remaining two hostages run and then threw a chair at Akram. He then ran out of the building as well. By being vigilant he was able to save himself and his fellow parishoners.

6.) Being vigilant at all times. Extremely difficult to do. Rabbi Cytron-Walker saw a man who said he needed help and he did what Abraham would have done, what every mentschlach rabbi would do: he sat with him and offered him a cup of tea. He had no idea that this man would point a gun at him minutes later. The vast majority of my colleagues and I did not become rabbis to be suspicious of people’s motives, to think that someone would manipulate us into welcoming us in only to later take us hostage. As hard as it is to turn people away we don’t recognize, I’m saddened to say that might be in the future. I hope that we don’t need to become hardened to the degree of European synagogues, where one needs to make a reservation in advance, and in some cases bring two forms of photo ID. In 2005 I went to the New London Synagogue, showed my passport and was still denied entrance because a background check was not done. In 2009 my classmate Phil and I visited the Jewish Museum in Istanbul, and we had to be led by two separate sets of security guards, turning three different directions before passing through metal detectors and then seeing a sign for a museum. We couldn’t find the synagogue we had a reservation for that Friday evening and had to do services on our own. While one does not want to overreact, we also need to take an abundance of caution and at times suspicion, especially when we are interacting with people we are just meeting for the first time.

7.) Having faith. This is the hardest of all. With another antisemitic attack and the Omicron virus surging, many clergy are saying they didn’t sign up for this, as I heard multiple times on a zoom meeting yesterday evening. A number of my younger colleagues are leaving the pulpit and a number of older colleagues are retiring early. There are at least 25-30 more Conservative pulpits available than candidates. When I saw Rabbi Cytron-Walker last night, I saw a man who is able to have the courage of his convictions, who knows that love triumphs over fear, who is able to build community and bring community together towards a common goal. That is to me what being a pulpit rabbi is all about, and that pastoral, kind presence is the type of leader who I would want as my rabbi.

As we prepare for Parshat Yitro, I want to echo Yitro’s words, Baruch Adonai, Blessed is God. I believe that there is more good than evil in the world and that we need to show gratitude to God for all our blessings. We cannot let the bad guys win by hanging our heads or giving up, yet we can also not be naive. Antisemitism is alive and well in the United States of America and we must always be vigilant and not let our guard down. It is a sad but true reality. At the same time, we must always keep hope for a better future, that together with God we will bring peace and equanimity, both to us and to the world.

Moses’ Special Nature

What’s so great about Moses? Last week God told him, “I appeared unto Abraham, unto Isaac and unto Jacob as El Shaddai but I did not make myself known to them by my name Adonai.”[1] That is factually inaccurate.[2] My belief is that God said this to Moses in order to build up his confidence during a difficult moment. If you recall from Parshat Shemot, Moses’ first visit to Pharaoh didn’t go so well. Pharoah not only didn’t let Israel go, he also made them gather their own straw![3] When the Israelites accost Moses, he exclaims to God “Why have you done evil to this people? Did you send me for this?!” למה הרעותה לעם הזה למה זה שלחתני[4]

         At this point God indicates to Moses how special he is, that he received a gift that even Abraham, Isaac and Jacob did not: God’s special name becoming revealed to him. He will serve as judge[5] to Pharaoh, subjecting him to ten plagues including the worst of all-the death of his firstborn child.[6]

         From Shemot to Bo, we see a great evolution in Moses, indicating why he is truly a special leader. At the beginning of the Torah portion, Pharaoh, says to go and then asks Moses “who should go?”[7] He will only let the men go, but that’s a no-go for Moses. The man who once was so timid, refusing to serve God four times in Parshat Shemot and once in Parshat VaEra, here makes the ultimate statement of a leader. וַיֹּ֣אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֔ה בִּנְעָרֵ֥ינוּ וּבִזְקֵנֵ֖ינוּ נֵלֵ֑ךְ בְּבָנֵ֨ינוּ וּבִבְנוֹתֵ֜נוּ בְּצֹאנֵ֤נוּ וּבִבְקָרֵ֙נוּ֙ נֵלֵ֔ךְ כִּ֥י חַג־יְהֹוָ֖ה לָֽנוּ׃ Moses said “We will go with our young and our old, our sons and our daughters, our flocks and our herds-for it is a holiday of God for all of us.[8] Moses refused to leave anyone behind. He would not accept a partial exodus-rather the entire Israelite community needed to be free. The very people Pharaoh was afraid of[9] becomes a people in the fullest sense with these words of Moses.

         We learn three crucial lessons from Moses that should be applied to leaders today. First, it’s ok to be afraid of stepping up, as long as one eventually does the right thing and leads when s/he needs to. Moses’ fear dissipates when push comes to shove. He does not take a plea bargain or a settlement but, recognizing he has the upper hand and that the most vulnerable of Israel need to be protective, takes an all-or-nothing stance. Second, at times a leader will fail and the point is to learn from one’s failures. Moses’ first attempt to lead ended in disaster-the Israelites had to procure their own straw, working even harder than before. It took learning from his mistake and going back before Pharoah again and again for Moses to develop the confidence he exudes in Parshat Bo. Third and most important, all leaders need cheerleaders to encourage us to stay the course, especially when the going gets rough. Two weeks ago Moses was discouraged, doubting himself and his abilities, believing that his mission would never succeed. With God as his cheerleader, bolstering his confidence by telling him how special his role truly is, Moses developed the courage to go return to Pharaoh. He also had the aid of his brother Aaron, and the two of them together succeeded where one alone might have failed.

         In our new secular year 2022, it is my hope that each of us will look at situations in which we are a leader and evaluate how we might be more effective. Perhaps we need to find supporting hands to help us when we are afraid to try again. Maybe we need to learn a lesson from a past struggle. Whatever the case may be, let us recognize that we are not alone and that together, with the right partners, we can work together to make a positive difference in our communities. Ken Yhi Ratzon, may it be our will to do so.

[1] Exodus 6:3

[2] See Genesis 16:7 and 24:3

[3] Exodus 5:6

[4] Exodus 5:22

[5] Exodus 7:1. Interestingly the word for judge, אלהים, is the same as the word for God, perhaps indicating that Moses, the foundling adopted by Pharaoh, will in fact hold up a mirror to him as God’s designee, showing who the true God is.

[6] Exodus 11:29

[7] Exodus 10:8

[8] Exodus 10:9

[9] Pharaoh is the first person to define Israel as עם, a people or a nation, in Exodus 1:9