AUSTIN, Texas - City leaders from all faith backgrounds gathered Monday afternoon at the Dell Jewish Community Center in support of the Jewish community after a fire - believed to be arson - at a local synagogue.
"We condemn all hate and acts of violence against any of our faith communities," said Simone Talma Flowers, executive director of Interfaith Action of Central Texas, quoting a statement that had been signed by over 500 members of the community.
The fire appeared to be intentionally set at the front doors of Congregation Beth Israel on Sunday night around 9 p.m.
As a member of the congregation for the past 20 years, cantorial soloist Sarah Avner was looking forward to later this week when they planned to start gathering in person again. She said those plans are now potentially on hold.
"It’s very disappointing because we were really looking forward to it," she said. "We haven’t had our religious students there in person since March 9, 2020."
Sunday’s fire comes on the heels of a couple of other incidents, though it’s unclear if they are connected. Earlier this month, antisemitic banners were seen hanging over local freeway overpasses. Just before that, Anderson High School students found antisemitic slurs and symbols painted in their parking lot.
"To now have this happen on top of that feels really painful for our entire community," said Rabbi Kelly Levy of Congregation Beth Israel. "I would ask them why, I would ask them to think about the fact that this is a community that just wants to give them love, and then I would probably offer my forgiveness."
In an update Monday, Austin Fire Department Captain Brandon Jennings said there did appear to be some ignitable liquid that was used, and that was confirmed by an accelerant detection canine. AFD sent samples to a state lab for further review.
According to AFD, the building sustained damage to the front, wooden doors, and some interior damage to floor mats and the door jam. The glass was also damaged by smoke, and one part of the glass appeared to be intentionally broken. AFD estimated a cost of $25,000 for clean-up and repairs. The fire was contained to the front entrance.
"If you can get one high point out of this, it’s that based on the (concrete) building structure, it did save the building quite a bit," said Capt. Jennings.
Members of the congregation hope they can restore the damage that was done to more than just their physical meeting place. "Hopefully we can move toward kindness," said Avner. "Maybe one act of kindness can lead to another, and this will stop for all faith communities."