(February 15, 2022 / JNS) In a video conversation with Jewish leaders and community members last week, White House liaison to the Jewish community Chanan Weissman spoke about the tense moments and actions he took last month when an armed assailant held four congregants hostage, including the rabbi, at Congregation Beth Israel synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, leading to a nearly 11-hour standoff with authorities.
The moderator of the Feb. 7 event, Jeremy Burton, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston, asked Weissman what it was like to be the Jewish liaison when news broke of the crisis.
Weissman said that six years ago when he served in the same position, he had thought about what to do if an act of terror took place in the United States during Shabbat or a Jewish holiday, similar to the Pulse Nightclub shooting on June 12, 2016, in Orlando, Fla., which happened on Shavuot.
The two deadly synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway, Calif., in 2018 and 2019, respectively, also occurred on Shabbat, even though Weissman wasn’t charged with his present duties at the time.
The complication is that as a Modern Orthodox Jew, Weissman does not use electronics on Shabbat or on certain holidays for a 25-hour period.
On Jan. 15, he recalled walking into a room at around 4:30 p.m. and seeing his phone starting to light up, even though his phone has an “out of office” message so that people know.
He knew something was wrong.
“I’m getting calls from several people and text messages saying, ‘Jump on the phone, you got to give me a call, there is an attack in Texas. There is a rabbi who was taken hostage,’ ” he said. “ ‘And I know the rabbi’ this person says to me, ‘and I know the family … ,’ ” said Weissman. “I’m not law enforcement, but I am the White House’s link to the Jewish community.”
During that period, he asked himself what exactly his responsibilities were during such a situation once Shabbat ended.
First, noted Weissman, he needed to find out the details and reach out to as many members of the Jewish community as possible to share the information, check on their status, and let them know that the White House stands with them.
“We the White House, we the U.S. government, me the president’s representative to the Jewish community, we’re with you. We see what’s going on, we’re watching the news, we are on the case,” said Weissman, adding that at the time, one of the top SWAT teams from Quantico, Va., had flown to Texas to assist in the situation.
He then reached out to the heads of the Reform community since the Colleyville synagogue and rabbi were part of that religious stream. He figured out who the affected family members were to reach out to them and to major Jewish organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League, Jewish Federations of North America and others to express support from the White House.
He then started to draft a statement that the president would eventually issue on the situation from the “war room” in the closet of his Baltimore home.
“Then there’s the important small things like, let’s say—thinking ahead of time—let’s say the president wants to call the rabbi. Got to get his phone number,” he said.
‘Maintain that sense of security we need’
After U.S. President Joe Biden spoke to Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker by phone, reaching him on the second try, Weissman said he continued reaching out to the community in Texas.
Many, he said, didn’t even know there was a White House Jewish liaison position. Weissman said he listened to them in order to take back information for colleagues in the White House.
Leading up to the next Shabbat, Weissman said he wanted to ensure that the Jewish community knew the White House viewed the incident as an act of terrorism and act of anti-Semitism against the Jewish community. As such, he conducted calls with “thousands” of people with various job titles.
“On one call, there was the head of the FBI, the head of the [U.S.] Department of Homeland Security, the Attorney General and the head of the [U.S.] Department of Justice, all on one call,” said Weissman. “You don’t see that. That is a rarity because we really wanted to connect with the Jewish community and let them know that we are here for you, and we are tracking it, and we are committed to making sure this doesn’t happen again.”
He said he wanted to ensure that Jews felt some calm as they walked into their synagogues for the following Shabbat. Right before Shabbat, another call was hosted with the Jewish community again with Biden administration leaders focused on domestic security.
During it, Weissman said he referred to a quote by Cytron-Walker, who said that whether someone calls it a shul, a temple or a synagogue, “at its core, it’s a beit knesset”—literally, a “house of assembly.”
“He said you focus on the knesset part—a place to congregate, to gather, to form bonds with one another, the Divine, and we’ve been doing that a long time—several thousands of years,” said Weissman. “I said it hits home because a synagogue, like a school, is at its core a home. A beit knesset is a home, it is a beit; it’s literally a home, and we have to treat it as a home. We have to sort of maintain that balance between it serving as a forum for community and maintain that sense of security we need.”
Weissman said that the White House continues to work on the issue behind the scenes, making sure worshippers of all religions can gather and pray in safety.
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