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1,500 synagogue leaders meet with feds to discuss security in wake of Texas standoff

Attorney General Merrick Garland tried to reassure worried Jewish leaders just three days after a rabbi and three other peope were held hostage for 11 hours.

It was a Zoom call for help.

Some 1,500 worried Jewish leaders dialed in Tuesday to ask Attorney General Merrick Garland and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas to beef up security just three days after an 11-hour standoff at a Texas synagogue that ended when the gunman who had taken a rabbi and three others hostage was killed.

The virtual meeting was organized to "hear directly what the government is doing to prevent future attacks and what resources are available to make our shuls and other institutions more secure,” said Nathan Diament of the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America, which co-hosted the call with the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Garland and Mayorkas, both of whom are Jewish, were joined on the call that lasted more than an hour by FBI Director Christopher Wray and Paul Abbate, the deputy director of the FBI, a spokeswoman for the Orthodox Union said.

"I did not know the FBI director was going to join us until he appeared on the screen," Diament, who is his group's executive director of public policy, told NBC News. "And he offered some practical steps for increasing security that rabbis and synagogue leaders can take immediately, like getting to know the head of the local FBI field office."

SWAT team members deploy near the Congregation Beth Israel Synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, on Jan. 15, 2022.
SWAT team members deploy near the Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, on Saturday. Andy Jacobshon / AFP via Getty Images

He said that, first and foremost, they were seeking "from the top leaders of the U.S. government a message of solidarity and support."

"We got that," Diament said. "When the attorney general of the United States talks about how he sees a police car outside when he goes to the synagogue, and it's not there just to protect him, it shows that he understands the mindset of the community."

He said more security meetings between the Jewish community and the government are planned. He said his group and other Jewish organizations will continue to press for increased funding for the Nonprofit Security Grant Program, which is administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and which places of worship and nongovernmental organizations have used to increase security by installing fences and cameras and hiring security guards.

In a sign of how much more vulnerable organizations like these have become to acts of terror like Saturday's attack on Congregation Beth Israel in a suburb of Fort Worth, Texas, funding for the grants has climbed from $20 million in 2016 to $180 million last year, according to FEMA.

Jewish organizations have called on the U.S. government to quadruple federal funding from $90 million to $360 million to secure synagogues and other places of worship from hate crimes.

Asked whether he sees parallels between what's happening now in the U.S. and the rising antisemitism in the country that preceded World War II, Diament said there is a key difference.

"The difference between then and now is that the highest levels of the United States government condemn antisemitism and attacks on Jews," he said.

The call about security came as Jews across the country were still digesting the latest eruption of anti-Jewish violence over the weekend in Texas.

In that case, a 44-year-old British citizen named Malik Faisal Akram got inside the synagogue Saturday and took Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker and three members of his congregation hostage. Akram was demanding the release of Aafia Siddiqui, who is being held in a Texas federal prison after being convicted in 2010 of attempting to kill American soldiers in Afghanistan. 

Image: Rabbi Charlie Cytron Walker.
Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker.Rabbi Charlie Cytron Walker / via Facebook

The standoff ended some 11 hours later when Cytron-Walker hurled a chair at Akram, enabling the hostages to escape, and FBI agents burst inside and shot the gunman dead.

"I am grateful to be alive," the rabbi said afterward.

The United Jewish Appeal and the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York were expected to host a second meeting with Jewish leaders about synagogue security later Tuesday.

“Colleyville was a stark reminder of the ever-present threats facing the American Jewish community and the critical importance of the training and security that we enable and support across our region,” the groups' invitation, obtained by The Forward, read.

But securing any house of worship raises ethical as well as logistical questions because they are, by their very nature, places that welcome strangers, said Imam Omar Suleiman, a Texas-based Islamic scholar who raced to the synagogue to help after he got word that his friend Cytron-Walker had been taken hostage.

“I think that there’s been a lot of emphasis on the last moments of that standoff, but I think when you go to the very beginning, it started because Charlie refused to turn away from a man in front of his synagogue and that he thought needed help," Suleiman said on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."

"He let him in despite any security concerns."