Texas Man Arrested After Synagogue Fire as Several Antisemitic Incidents Plague Austin

A Texas man was arrested, accused of setting fire to an Austin synagogue on Halloween, arson investigators with the Austin Fire Department (AFD) said Wednesday.

Franklin Barrett Sechriest, 18, has been accused of arson for allegedly igniting the front sanctuary doors of Congregation Beth Israel, which led to a "small exterior fire" that, AFD said, escalated to sweep across the front entrance of the building.

The synagogue was reportedly empty at the time, which was about 9 p.m., and nobody was injured, according to AFD.

The department later tweeted a picture of the charred synagogue after the fire, which arson investigators stated caused approximately $25,000 in damage.

AFD on scene of a small exterior fire at Congregation Beth Israel 3901 Shoal Creek Blvd. fire is out. No injuries. Arson investigators responding to assist with cause determination. pic.twitter.com/hgMvJNAk5o

— Austin Fire Info (@AustinFireInfo) November 1, 2021

Authorities said surveillance video outside of the congregation shows Sechriest driving up to the parking lot in a Jeep, carrying a "heavy green jug." Video then shows fires being started from four different angles as Sechriest leaves the scene, authorities said.

Additional surveillance footage allegedly shows Sechriest scouting the synagogue days before the arson. In the video, the same Jeep seen on the night of the fire can be seen driving up to the building, then driving off, authorities said.

The investigation is ongoing and also involves the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).

Star of David
Arson at a synagogue marks the latest in a wave of recent antisemitic acts across the Austin, Texas, area. Above, a Jewish Star of David necklace is shown. iStock/Getty

Congregation Beth Israel's associate rabbi, Kelly Levy, stated that "as a native Texan, this hatred breaks my heart."

"We will be compassionate and resolute because our love for humanity strengthens our resistance to hatred," Levy added during an interfaith gathering the day after the fire.

Additionally, Austin Mayor Steve Adler said that he was "heartbroken to see antisemitic hatred in Austin, a welcoming and respectful place. Hatred of any kind has no place in our city."

The arson marks the latest in a series of recent antisemitic acts across the Austin area.

Antisemitic graffiti was recently found scrawled on parking spots and a tool shed at Anderson High School. The school reportedly has a considerable population of Jewish students, and a local rabbi called it "the neighborhood school for those families who live in the facility of the Dell Jewish Community Campus."

Then, on the day preceding the arson, a banner was unfurled over a highway overpass by a member of the antisemitic hate group the Goyim Defense League, which the ADL describes as a "small network of virulently antisemitic provocateurs."

The banner reportedly read "Vax the Jews" and was displayed just blocks from a large Jewish community center. It was reported that the person holding the banner also gave a Nazi salute to passing motorists.

This was reportedly the second time that this banner had been seen in the Austin area, with the first incident taking place in late October.

Beyond these incidents, the Austin Police Department (APD) also faced criticism after one of their police officers was seen in a social media photo fist-bumping a known member of the Goyim Defense League.

In response to the picture, APD Chief Joseph Chacon released a statement saying that "hate and bigotry have absolutely no place in our community and certainly are not welcome in our police department."

Newsweek has contacted the ADL for comment.