Texas synagogue member describes horror of watching hostage situation unfold on Facebook
'I was glued to the computer,' says Anna Salton Eisen, founding member of Congregation Beth Israel
Anna Salton Eisen got a frantic message from a friend on Saturday morning that her rabbi was being held hostage and the whole thing was streaming live on Facebook.
Eisen is one of the founding members and former president of Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, where a gunman held four people hostage for 11 hours on Saturday.
The ordeal ended on Saturday evening, with all four hostages alive and unharmed, and the gunman dead. It's unclear whether the gunman took his own life or was killed by law enforcement.
For a while on Saturday, the whole thing was streaming live on Facebook, where the synagogue had been broadcasting its morning service. Eisen was one of the thousands of people watching the video with baited breath until Facebook cut the feed.
Here is part of her conversation with As It Happens host Carol Off.
How did you come to realize that something was going on?
I received a text on my phone from a friend who is a congregant, who said: "Our rabbi has been taken hostage at the synagogue."
I quickly dialled her and she was hysterical and saying, you know, "Get on Facebook! Get on Facebook! It's live-streaming."
So I logged on and went onto the page, and you couldn't see any people. The laptop was pointing to the pulpit. But you could hear that there was a dialogue going on. And I recognized the voice of my rabbi — you know, very soothing and calm — interspersed with, I guess, the hostage-taker, who was alternating between making demands and at times talking on the phone with the negotiators and demanding that they allow this person he wanted to talk to on the phone and also, you know, telling them he meant business
He was demanding the release of a woman who is in custody very close by in Fort Worth. She's in a detention centre there, Aafia Siddiqui, and he was demanding that she be released. That's what he was saying. Could you hear him talking about that?
Yes. I mean, at times just demanding to speak with her on the telephone. And this went on for hours.
You must have been really worried about those four people who were in the synagogue.
Of course. And I was glued to the computer.
Part of the time I just wanted to run away because you're listening for the possible sounds of life ending, but you are just frozen there because you're hanging on every word and every moment.
You mentioned how your rabbi, Charlie Citron-Walker, how calm he was.… What's he like? What do you think he brought to this moment that allowed him to be in such control?
As clergy, they are trained to be calm and soothing, whether it is in the hospital room of a family that's undergoing a crisis or, you know, any other kind of escalation.
He is a very calm and caring clergy member. And over the 16 years that I've known him, when I've had to call him for any kind of crisis — the passing of my father — he has been very caring. And this is his nature. He's a gentle, strong and very educated religious leader.
I understand that many congregations and synagogues and rabbis have have made themselves familiar with how to do this since synagogues have been attacked, right? Especially the most horrible experience at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh a few years ago. So this is something that, I guess, people think about in these congregations.
I am the child of two Holocaust survivors. I'm an author of my father's Holocaust memoir, and I have another book coming out in April, Pillar of Salt. So I personally have grown up with these stories.
One of the hardest things that happened Saturday is that my mother, who lives with us, she's a Holocaust survivor and turning 100 on Saturday, and I had to go and tell her that this was going on.
It was a terrible moment. I could see the fear in her eyes and we were both tearful. And it was just as if the thing we thought could not happen in our small town, where we felt safe, had happened and violated our trust and our safety and kind of changed us.
How much more difficult was it when they actually cut that feed, when Facebook took down the feed after a couple of hours and you couldn't know what was going on inside?
It was devastating not to be able to hear. I understand it was taken down because the gunman was aware that it was on the feed, was having comments read to him. And so there was concern, I guess, that it would end up causing more harm.
But for us, yeah, it was hard. Then we just kind of had to wait. We still, I think, busied the time by staying in touch with each other. And fortunately ... it ended before the night was over.
The outreach has been tremendous from all communities, from people of all faiths, from mosques, from churches, from neighbours, from friends.- Anna Salton Eisen, founding member, Congretation Beth Israel synagogue
All the hostages got out. Do you know much about how they were able to get out of the synagogue?
Apparently, you know, they practise their safety measures, which was to try and get closer and closer to an exit. And then, from what I understand, at one point, when they felt like things had deteriorated and the gunman was getting very aggressive and belligerent, the rabbi threw a chair at him and yelled, "Run!"
And they all bolted out of a back door.
At what point after that did you know that they were all safe?
It was fairly quickly that we were notified that everybody was out, everybody was safe, and everyone was unharmed.
And how was it to be able to tell your mom that that was what had happened?
It was wonderful. It was great. I mean, these are people that we have a personal relationship with, that we care for deeply. And so it's like having a family member.
We heard from the family of the hostage-taker, who is now dead. And the family said that he was suffering from mental illness, and the family has apologized to your community. What's it like for you to hear that?
Because I'm a mental health worker, you know, I understand. I feel bad for the family. I think it's a tragedy. I'm sorry for whatever reason this person did not get the help in order to avoid whatever thought process led him to come to another country and try and do this.
I'm sure that the family is grieving. And I know that at one point, the [gunman's] brother was on the call. You could hear it, and you could hear the gunman saying to him, "Brother, stop crying, I'm going to die at the end of this day."
So I feel bad for the family. I harbour no ill-will toward them.
I'll say the outreach has been tremendous from all communities, from people of all faiths, from mosques, from churches, from neighbours, from friends.
I think the unity that we can experience will be the remedy. Not once through this did people bring up gun control or COVID or politics. It was just a matter of saying: We are all here for each other.
And so hopefully that is a lesson we can take moving forward.
Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview produced by Sarah Jackson.