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One year later, Congregation Beth Israel rabbi reflects on synagogue arson attack

The doors at Congregation Beth Israel are still scorched a year later. The rabbi says it's taking some time for them to figure out how they'll move forward.

AUSTIN, Texas — October marks exactly one year since an arson attack at an Austin synagogue.

Congregation Beth Israel was targeted by then-18-year-old Franklin Sechriest, who set flames to the synagogue's front doors, which lead into the sanctuary.

"You know, it's still sobering and upsetting," said Rabbi Steven Folberg.

Those are emotions the rabbi said haven't wavered over the past year.

"Any emotion that you would expect somebody to feel if somebody tried to burn their house down were some of the feelings that were felt," said Rabbi Folberg.

Rabbi Folberg was in Iowa visiting his daughter in college the night of the attack, working hard to get updates on what was happening at the synagogue.

"There was security camera footage of him coming onto the campus with this 5 gallon jerry can full of not gasoline, but some sort of an accelerant," said Rabbi Folberg.

An investigation later revealed Sechriest admitted to his crime, writing in a journal, "I set a synagogue on fire."

The damage left a sanctuary unusable.

"They've mourned loved ones here. They've celebrated things with their families and their children all the holidays," said Rabbi Folberg when referencing the sanctuary that now sits empty.

The doors at Congregation Beth Israel are still scorched a year later. The rabbi said it's taking time for them to figure out how they'll move forward with the sanctuary. He said he hopes the road ahead won't be much longer.

Credit: Ford Sanders/KVUE

"But actually getting it done, you know, it's just going to take a while," he said.

The rabbi said the attack was something his congregation couldn't believe.

"Surprising to me is that several of what my students said was, 'I feel disappointed.' And I said, 'What do you mean, disappointed?' And they said, 'This is Austin. Who sets a synagogue on fire in Austin?'" he said.

He noted anti-Semitism today is unfortunately a very real problem they are still facing.

"I've been a rabbi since 1985, so 37 years, and I never thought that I would be speaking, let's say to my students here about contemporary, violent, American anti-Semitism," said Rabbi Folberg.

He said as they continue to move forward, love will remain at the forefront.

Rabbi Folberg confirmed they are working with an architect to bring together plans for the sanctuary. For now, they are using another space inside of the synagogue.

He said the support across Austin has been healing for them, noting churches and mosques across the city have stepped up. He noted the imam from the North Austin Islamic Center presented Beth Israel a $5,000 check at a rally for kindness last year. He also noted the Saint Matthews Episcopal Church members allowed them to host their holidays in their space free of charge.

If you would like to donate to Beth Israel, click here.

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