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Members listened in terror via live stream as their Texas synagogue was taken hostage

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

The tense hostage situation that began yesterday at a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, just outside Dallas, is over. All of the hostages are free after law enforcement forced their way into the building. Officials say the man who held them for more than 10 hours is now dead. According to The Associated Press, he was demanding the release of a Pakistani neuroscientist who was convicted of trying to kill U.S. Army officials in Afghanistan. Anna Salton Eisen is one of the founding members of Congregation Beth Israel. Anna is with us. And, Anna, I am sorry your synagogue went through this, and thank you for being willing to talk with us about it.

ANNA SALTON EISEN: Thank you for having me.

PFEIFFER: I understand you were not at the synagogue yesterday but were able to still follow this very closely, and I'm sure it had to have been very harrowing. When did you first realize something was happening?

SALTON EISEN: Well, in the morning, I got text messages from several other congregants urging me to get on Facebook, where we had a live feed of the morning worship services. And when I logged in, I saw that the camera was on the pulpit, but you couldn't see any people. But the audio was on, and it stayed on for several hours. So I stayed, you know, glued to the computer. At times, I really felt like I wanted to walk away. It was so terrifying because everything was live, and people's lives were at stake, and every minute could have been - that things would turn in a bad direction.

PFEIFFER: Could you not see people but you could hear people talking, perhaps the hostage-taker?

SALTON EISEN: Yes, you couldn't see any people. You could hear the hostage-taker. And there were a few times where you could hear the rabbi talking in a very calm and soothing voice. Not quite clear what he was saying. At another time, he was on the phone. I'm not sure who he was speaking with, but he was reassuring them that the hostages were, at that time, not harmed.

PFEIFFER: This is the hostage-taker saying this.

SALTON EISEN: No, this was the rabbi.

PFEIFFER: The rabbi. Could you hear what the hostage-taker was saying?

SALTON EISEN: He was speaking on and off. The audio wasn't very good. But he was, I guess, talking about this person that he wanted to see. And, you know, there were times where it went quiet. But it wasn't very clear to always understand what he was saying. I don't know how close he was since he wasn't visible to the laptop.

PFEIFFER: Was he more calm? Was he agitated?

SALTON EISEN: I would not say very calm.

PFEIFFER: Many synagogues in the U.S. have had to beef up security over the last several years. Do you know if Beth Israel, your synagogue, has security? Anything you can tell us about that?

SALTON EISEN: Well, I mean, I can't go into detail because that's part of the security process.

PFEIFFER: Sure.

SALTON EISEN: But I do know that it has been addressed, it's taken quite seriously and that there's a very close relationship with the Colleyville law enforcement, as well as surrounding communities. So I think, just like other government institutions, churches, synagogues, public schools, this has become, you know, part of the everyday operations - is to just be aware and be prepared.

PFEIFFER: As we mentioned, all of the hostages have now been released. Have you learned anything else since this hostage situation ended?

SALTON EISEN: No, I just know that everybody is relieved they're released. We're - we feel that we have to enter, now, a time of recovery. The building will be, of course, off-limits while the investigation continues. We still have not been told any details about the name of the person or anything surrounding that. And I'm sure when they're ready to share that - but I just know that everybody is just, you know, really relieved.

There was a tremendous outpouring of support and prayer with such great intensity from our community and even, you know, from around the world. So I think, you know, we still - or I still believe, you know, this is a safe and caring community. And I feel even more supported and safe after what happened yesterday by the response that we got from community leaders, from law enforcement. And it's just kind of a warning about the world we live in, but it's also reassuring that we are definitely stronger together.

PFEIFFER: That's Anna Salton Eisen, one of the founding members of Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas. I'm glad everyone at your congregation made it out safely, and thank you so much for talking with us today.

SALTON EISEN: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sacha Pfeiffer is a correspondent for NPR's Investigations team and an occasional guest host for some of NPR's national shows.