By Sean Callahan
According to NBC News, on Jan. 16, Malik Faisal Akram, a middle-aged British citizen, held four people hostage at gunpoint during a morning Shabbat service in Congregation Beth Israel, a reform synagogue in the city of Colleyville, Texas. A ten-hour standoff with law enforcement outside the Dallas-Fort Worth area followed, during which Akram demanded the release of Aafia Siddiqui, a neuroscientist convicted on terrorist charges. All four hostages, including Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, survived unharmed, and Akram was shot and killed by the FBI’s rescue team.
In response to this tragedy, Rabbi Jamie Gibson, adjunct theology lecturer, hosted a public prayer service and vigil in the Performing Arts Center in the Robert S. Carry Student Center from 1:00 to 1:45 p.m. on Jan. 25. Gibson had gone to Father Maximillian Maxwell, O.S.B, director of campus ministry, and asked for assistance in making the event possible.
The service was open to the public and received 11 attendees, including Maxwell, Dr. Christopher McMahon, professor of theology, and several SVC students – two of whom presented prayers as well as poems written following the Colleyville hostage crisis. These were shown in between songs sung and performed on guitar by Gibson. Gibson also showed a video compilation in which a large number of Jewish people sang a song based on Psalm 147.
A large portion of the vigil was also dedicated to Gibson’s reflection following the Colleyville crisis.
“One of the first things I teach my students is that Jews are statistically insignificant,” Gibson said. “There are 8 billion people in the world, 2.1 billion Christians, 1.6 billion Muslims. There are 14 million Jews. There were 18 million before World War II.”
He said that, even with 14 million Jewish people, only about two percent are expected to live a Jewish life. He emphasized the hatred and belittling his people have experienced, but he also clarified that these anti-Semitic and hateful attitudes should not be attributed solely to one political ideology – or, as Gibson said, “the far right or the far left” – but rather equally to both.
“Just yesterday, we were treated to a prominent politician from Massachusetts, who said that vaccine and mask mandates were worse than Nazism,” Gibson said. “And I have to wonder: does he know what Nazism is? Does he know what it was to have only one Jewish grandparent out of four and still be slated for extermination?”
Gibson also provided other examples of tone-deaf remarks or anti-Semitism, especially highlighted in the media, such as a Jewish boy being told by a passing stranger that “Hitler should’ve finished the job” in front of his class, or people wearing shirts that say “Camp Auschwitz.”
Furthermore, he revealed there have been concerns in the Jewish community regarding what to do during hostage situations and the possibility of armed guards being in synagogues.
“To my friends in the Presbyterian world, are there armed guards at your doors? To my Catholic friends, do you need armed guards ready to shoot those who would come do you harm?” Gibson said.
Gibson reflected on another prominent attack in 2018, the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh. He was a mile away at the time, blessing a baby in another synagogue. He was forced to stop the service by a man who had informed him about the nearby shooting.
“He said, ‘we have to stop, we don’t know how many shooters there are, how many synagogues are under attack,’” Gibson said.
Two days after the Tree of Life shooting, Gibson described being unsure of how to console worshippers in his own synagogue, especially when one teenager asked him “Am I safe here?”
He hopes people realize that there is a need to reach out, support and comfort one another, regardless of faith.
“When these things happen – and they will continue to happen – we should be asking ourselves, where will we be?” Gibson said.