Austin Synagogue targeted in hate crime holds high holidays at Episcopal church

In front of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in West Austin a plaque reads "a house of prayer for all people. Isaiah 56:7" 

The church became a "house of prayer" for Congregation Beth Israel during this year's Jewish high holidays. The congregation held their Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services inside St. Matthew’s. 

"It was our honor and privilege to be able to host congregation Beth Israel. It was a privilege to be asked, and it was a privilege to be able to say yes," said Rev. Katie Wright of St. Matthew’s. "Love is the greatest force in the world. Greater than hate."

Congregation Beth Israel was set on fire last Halloween. Investigators ruled the arson a hate crime. An 18-year-old Texas State student was charged with the crime. He was a member of the Texas State Guard. 

"This was an attack on all of Austin," said Mayor Pro-Tem Alison Alter. 

Alter worships at the congregation. She said the attack was part of a string of anti-Semitic incidents that occurred in the area over a 10-day period.

The sanctuary, the main worship area, was damaged in the attack. Repairs were initially estimated to cost about $25,000. Congregation Beth Israel Rabbi Steven Folberg said that number is now closer to $1 million. 

He compared attempting to repair the old building to "peeling back an onion", with safety issues such as asbestos complicating the process. 

The congregation is temporarily utilizing another space within the synagogue for worship. However, it is too small for average high holiday turnout. 

Folberg contacted Interfaith Action of Central Texas to help locate a space for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The organization connected the synagogue with St. Matthews. 

"I was so overwhelmingly happy to have all these people that I love in person and to hear them singing and to and to just be together. I mean, that was glorious. That's you know, there's an afterglow from that. I'm still really happy about that. The sadness and the tragedy and the ugliness of what happened to us in the holiday itself, for me, was overwhelmed by the graciousness and kindness that the St Matthew's folks showed us," said Folberg. 

Following the attack, Alter said the city has been working with the Anti-Defamation League and ATX Kind. 

"I think we came together and said, ‘This is not who we are. There is no place for hate.’ But it is still something that we need to be on guard for because the seeds of that hate, the seeds of that racism are still out there in our country."