Army jeep near scene of standoff
Army jeep near scene of standoffREUTERS/Shelby Tauber

For most of the Shabbat services streamed from Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas over the course of the past two years, there were only a few dozen congregants viewing the service from home.

But as the regular Shabbat morning service led by Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker was transformed into a harrowing hostage situation Saturday, thousands of people tuned in and shared their fear and hopes for good news in the comments.

“How many people are in there?” one woman commented on the video as she watched.

“Prayers,” another person wrote.

While the switch to live streamed services was meant to make Jews safer during a pandemic in which physical gatherings could spread a deadly disease, they have also changed the way Jews experience something that has become frighteningly familiar: attacks on synagogues. It also meant there were fewer people in the building at the time of the attack, as most people who participated in the service did so from home due to the spread of the Omicron variant.

Unlike the 2018 attack on the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, which some synagogues heard about in the middle of services from news alerts, the live streamed services that Congregation Beth Israel initiated due to the pandemic meant Jews around the world watched the hostage situation unfold in real time. All over the world, thousands of people listened as the disembodied voice of the armed attacker came through their computers. Their screens showed the silent prayer that ends the Amidah prayer, the point in the service at which the attacker interrupted the prayers.

Ellen Smith grew up in the synagogue and told CNN she was watching the live stream to try and learn what was happening.

“I was watching the live stream for about an hour and a half before it got shut down and I have no idea who’s in there or what’s happening, we’re all, even members of the congregation, just watching and holding our breath and hoping for the best outcome,” Smith said.

But little was known about the situation after the live stream was shut down at 2 pm.

“The live stream got shut down and I have no idea what’s happening anymore,” she wrote in a tweet.

While the live stream offered little in the way of information about what was happening inside the synagogue, the use of the technology by the synagogue over the last two years offered strangers an inside view of the synagogue.

Watching the videos of previous services, viewers can see that Cytron-Walker, though a transplant from Michigan, has become a real Texan since becoming Beth Elohim’s rabbi in 2006 and frequently slips “y’all” into his speech. They can see that Cytron-Walker liked to intersperse his live streamed services with videos of cantors and choirs from around the world singing some of the prayers in the service. And they can see evidence first hand that Cytron-Walker is, as Smith called him in a Zoom vigil for the safety of the hostages, the “worst singer in the world.”

Strangers could even see what Cytron-Walker was planning to teach in a Torah study session Saturday; his lesson plan for the day was posted to Sefaria, an online database of Jewish texts. In it, Cytron-Walker planned to talk about the sense of uncertainty and stress felt by many during the pandemic. He planned to finish with a comment from Moshe Greenberg on the verse from Exodus 7:3, “I will harden Pharaoh’s heart.”

“While events unfold under the providence of God, their unfolding is always according to the motives of the human beings through whom God’s will is done without realizing it… Pharaoh conducted himself in conformity with his own motives and his own Godless view of his status,” Greenberg wrote. “God made it so, but Pharaoh had only to be himself to do God’s will.”