Two years after being taken hostage inside his synagogue, Jeffrey Cohen finds increased clarity of mission

By David ArkinJanuary 22, 2024April 30th, 2024No Comments

Two years after being taken hostage inside his synagogue, Jeffrey Cohen finds increased clarity of mission

By Joy Donovan
Photography by Mike Lewis

Morning prayers for hostages, detainees and prisoners are a routine part of Shabbat services in a synagogue.

“We praise God, literally, for freeing the captives,” said Jeffrey Cohen, remembering a January day two years ago when — even as he participated in such a prayer — he suddenly became the captive.

Cohen, then vice president of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, found himself in the prayers of others across the world as a horrific hostage situation on Jan. 15, 2022, became instant international news.

That morning two years ago, a 44-year-old British Pakistani, Malik Akram, was welcomed to the synagogue, sparsely occupied because it was brutally cold and COVID was still rampant. Charlie Cytron-Walker, then the synagogue’s rabbi, hospitably offered the stranger a cup of hot tea. In the middle of morning prayers, praising God for ancestors, remembering the Sabbath and thanking God for the ability to pray, Cohen heard the distinct click of a gun.

The man with the gun took Cohen, the rabbi, and three others hostage. The nightmare unfolded on social media since the service was available for congregants to observe at home. One hostage was released after six hours, and the others escaped safely 11 hours later. The FBI Hostage Rescue Team stormed the house of worship and fatally shot Akram.

Dramatic, shocking and horrifying, that catastrophic day never shook Cohen’s belief in the goodness of people.

That night he learned how many law enforcement officers had worked to save him. Two days later, Jews, Christians, Muslims and atheists gathered for a healing service in the sanctuary of neighboring White’s Chapel United Methodist Church in Southlake to support the synagogue’s members.

“Seeing how the community came out, that was powerful,” Cohen said recently, sitting in the same synagogue, remembering the ordeal. This teddy bear of a man, a Lockheed Martin engineer, stopped to gather himself.

With tears in his eyes, he said “You want to talk about restoring your faith in humanity, that does it.”

Cohen and his first wife were married at Temple Shalom in Dallas and later joined Congregation Beth Shalom in Arlington. This was long before Congregation Beth Israel existed, although the two became early members before a building existed.

They weren’t active members when his wife died. When he needed a place for her funeral, Congregation Beth Israel’s members helped in many ways through “the intense grief.” When he married his second wife, Karen Jewell, three years ago, it was at the synagogue. Religion centers his life, and he credits his faith with renewal.

“You don’t need to be a believer in God to experience the positives of religion,” he said. “There are a lot of people who think religion is negative, and what they don’t realize is that it gives you a sense of community, a sense of spirituality, and that is what humans need.

“The structure, the framework is there because it helps. It’s okay to find the one that works for you. You don’t need religion to tell you what’s right and wrong. It’s more than that.”

It’s important, he said, no matter which religion.

“What it does is force people to think about others,” he said. “It provides value to people.”

For at least a year after the hostage ordeal, Cohen’s health was affected. That day changed him. For one, he now never enters a place without spotting the exits. His first time back in his synagogue, looking at the broken glass was difficult.

“I was angry,” he remembers. “I really was because it didn’t need to happen. And why us? That’s how antisemitism is.”

In April 2022, the synagogue’s members marched their Torahs home down the sidewalks from nearby First United Methodist Church of Colleyville, where they had been stored during the building’s necessary repairs. He gets quiet and emotional.

“It was powerful, powerful because we didn’t get defeated,” he said. “It was renewal. A bad thing had happened, but we were able to overcome it. I think we’re a little stronger.”

The congregation’s repair — physically and emotionally — has been led by many, and Cohen is a part of it.

“He has natural leadership skill,” said Howard Rosenthal, a Southlake attorney who has served as congregation president and now is the board’s legal counsel. He watched as Cohen stepped up to the presidential role, a position Rosenthal believes Cohen had never considered before that January day.

“After Jan. 15, there was a lot that needed to be done,” Rosenthal said. “He did a wonderful job. He’s a no-nonsense sort of leader. If you’re looking for someone to soft-pedal things, that’s not Jeff. He gets to the bottom of things quickly.”

Those around Cohen have noticed increased clarity of purpose.

“In his core, he hasn’t changed at all,” said Amy Hamilton, director of the synagogue’s school. “He knows what he wants to do now a lot more. I think he wants to give in a Jewish way. He spends time in developing the youth, to growing the synagogue and to strengthen the community. And definitely he’s working very, very hard that there’s no place for antisemitism.”

Meanwhile, there’s a new normal for Congregation Beth Israel. The search for a new rabbi continues, as does the life of the congregation with the school revived and bar mitzvahs planned. The incident has shaped Cohen’s focus, but the approach is still the same.

“We’re still going to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry and keep faith with those who sleep in the dust,” he said.

Cohen speaks often to community groups. He wants to conduct security training, especially for religious institutions. In his retirement, he might help struggling math students.

“We want to build a better world,” he said. “There is a concept ‘tikkun olam,’ healing the world. To do that, we need to accept each other and fight hate. The way we do that best is to challenge when we hear the racist and antisemitic tropes.”

As he said this, Cohen looked at his hands, then his pale blue kippah, now sitting on the table in front of him. Its embroidery speaks his message: “Stronger than Hate.”