Rabbi Jason Nevarez of Congregation Beth Israel in San Diego attended college with the rabbi who was taken hostage in Colleyville, TX, on Saturday. After college, they were classmates at the Hebrew Union College seminary in Jerusalem in 2001 during the height of the Intifada.
In an interview on Saturday evening, Nevarez said that Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker had endured terror incidents before and that if anyone could have brought the hostage-taking drama in Colleyville to a successful conclusion, it would have been his friend “Charlie.”
Cytron-Walker graduated from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 1998 and Nevarez graduated the following year. While students, both taught at the Torah school at Congregation Beth Emeth, where Nevarez subsequently went on to become the youth director.
Charlie Cytron and Adena Walker decided to combine their surnames when they married approximately 25 years ago, Nevarez said. “I remember the apartment where they lived in Jerusalem.”
Cytron-Walker, whose Texas congregation is also named Beth Israel, had endured “the pain of terrorism, so he had been through trauma already,” Nevarez reflected. “I remember there was a close call when a suicide bomber blew himself up in front of HUC.”
Charlie, I remember, was one of the people who was there in the morning on his way to the seminary” when the suicide bomber accidentally detonated.
“We lived in the height of trauma,” Nevarez said. “He had close calls and experiences and lived through that and now having to endure 12 hours of whatever he ended up enduring during this standoff, I can’t even imagine.”
Asked to describe his colleague, Nevarez said, “He is someone who is kind. He is sincere. He is a community builder. If you are looking for someone to be there for you, he is the person. He has demonstrated that time and again in different circumstances. He was very much into multi-faith and interfaith relationships. That was his thing. he did that today.”
Nevarez said he heard a report that even the hostage taker, who was killed at the end of the standoff, said at one point that he really liked the rabbi. “That is not surprising. That is who he is. He is very likeable, very kind, very sweet.”
Nevarez was asked how the infiltration of his friend’s congregation, the 12-hour standoff, the safe release of the rabbi and three other hostages, and the death of the hostage-taker influenced his perspective about his own congregation.
“I think we have to be hyper-vigilant about identifying people who we may not know, being curious about them,” he responded. “Our security is top notch. We are one of the most protected sites in San Diego. We have a security director, two armed guards on duty whenever anyone is in the building. “
Does this mean that Jewish synagogues can no longer be places to “welcome the stranger?”
Nevarez responded that “we need to reimagine how we welcome the stranger. Our campus is an open campus but there are protocols to get in. As long as we remain vigilant about these protocols, we can always maintain sacred space and letting those who want to be part of our community to have the opportunity to attend here.”
Nevarez said he was inspired by how Jews all over the world came together to support the congregation in Colleyville. “I think we have much more in common than we think we do,” he said. “It shouldn’t take tragedy to bring us together and we have to keep working at it.”
Donald H. Harrison is editor emeritus of San Diego Jewish World.