Jeffrey Cohen, one of the hostages who were held by a gunman at Congregation Beth Israel in Texas, described on Tuesday how he, his rabbi and other congregants were able to escape.
Cohen said in an appearance on MSNBC that he arrived at the synagogue a few minutes after Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker had invited the gunman, Malik Faisal Akram, inside so he could "warm up."
“We invited him in. The rabbi gave him a cup of tea, let him sit in the back," Cohen said. "When I came in, Rabbi Charlie told me to come say hello, because I’m one of the congregants, I’m the vice president, so I normally would greet someone. [I] went over and had no reason to assume that he was anything other than what he said. ... He was quite jovial. He was friendly. He was on the phone.”
"It's part public and part private prayer,” Cohen said of the Shabbat service at the synagogue. “And we got into the private prayer, and I had gone through mine and sat down. And then I heard the unmistakable click of a semi-automatic being loaded, but it was context — it didn’t make sense that we would hear that kind of sound there, so I didn’t put much to it.
"Rabbi Charlie heard it, as well, and he was looking over at the attacker, and very soon after that he started yelling," Cohen continued. "To be perfectly honest, as soon as I heard him yelling, I knew there was something going on, so I wasn’t really concentrating on what he said."
Cohen said he dialed 911 and then turned his cellphone upside down so Akram would not see it. Akram is alleged to have started calling the congregants to the back of the room. Cohen said he positioned himself so he was in line with the exit, which he learned in a course about what to do in active shooter situations.
He credited the course with helping him get out alive.
“The whole time I was focused on what do I need to do to get out," he said.
Cohen said Akram said he did not want to hurt anyone and told them that “he was the only one who needed to die.” Cohen said he believes Akram was mentally ill, echoing a statement Akram's family made in an apology to the victims.
"The way he behaved makes me believe that," Cohen said.
He also noted that he did not think Akram was "your typical attacker" who wanted to kill Jewish people but that he had "bought into these tropes."
"He came to the Jews because he bought into these very dangerous stories that the Jews control the world and the Jews control the government and the banks and the media. And we as good people and we as patriotic Americans, we need to challenge those things when we hear them, because these words do have consequences," Cohen recalled.
Cohen, the synagogue’s rabbi and two other people made it out of the synagogue alive after Akram held them captive for more than 10 hours.
On Monday, Cohen gave an interview to Israel’s Channel 12 News, telling journalist Yuna Leibzon that the four hostages escaped on their own.
“It’s been reported that we were released or that we were rescued. That is not the truth. The truth is that we escaped. We escaped because we were preparing all along to take the initiative when we could have it,” said Cohen.
The rabbi of Congregation Beth El, Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker, on Monday publicly described for the first time the moment he and the other hostages escaped.
“The last hour or so of the standoff, he wasn’t getting what he wanted,” Cytron-Walker told CBS. “It didn’t look good. It didn’t sound good. We were very, we were terrified.
“And when I saw an opportunity where he wasn’t in a good position, I made sure that the two gentlemen who were still with me that they were ready to go. The exit wasn’t too far away. I told them to go, I threw a chair at the gunman and I headed for the door. And all three of us were able to get out without even a shot being fired.”
Cytron-Walker did not elaborate on what training kicked in, but accounts showed that he engaged Akram and kept him calm. Cytron-Walker made clear to Akram that he trusted him, according to audio that was streamed from the synagogue in the first hours of the crisis.
During an exchange with a hostage negotiator, Akram said, “Rabbi, I need you to tell him that you trust me that I will let you out. You’ve got to take my word for it.”
Cytron-Walker weighed in. “We do trust that. Again, I want to acknowledge, my word doesn’t mean much in this situation, but I do believe that he would let us out.”
In the interview with CBS, Cytron-Walker said his rabbinical training kept him cool.
“As a part of rabbinic training, as a part of training as clergy we talk a lot about the idea of being a calm, non-anxious presence, we do that in hospital rooms, we do that during the most difficult individual moments,” Cytron-Walker said. “I did the best that I could to do that throughout the standoff.”