A portion of the stained glass that survived the 2021 arson of an Austin, Texas synagogue has been rebuilt into a three-dimensional eternal flame that will be installed in the social hall of the synagogue’s building next week.
While the main sanctuary of the synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel, is still not open, the social hall has been renovated into a transitional worship space. On Aug. 25, the congregation hosted its first Friday night services in the building in nearly two years, and will gather there for the High Holidays beginning on Sept. 15.
In Nov. 2021, then-18-year-old Franklin Barrett Sechriest was arrested on local and federal arson charges for setting fire to the synagogue, a Reform congregation. The fire caused over $250,000 worth of damage to the synagogue, according to an email from a spokesperson representing the synagogue. It destroyed the synagogue’s historic carved wooden doors, damaged the building’s exterior and its stained glass windows, and caused smoke damage throughout the sanctuary, according to a donation page on the synagogue’s website.
The birth of the eternal flame
The glass that has been refashioned into an eternal flame, which stays perpetually lit, sits on a square wooden platform and is carved into the shape of a fire rising up from the wood in red, orange, yellow and blue. It will be hung over the bimah, where the Torah is read and where the rabbi leads services.
While the synagogue was closed for repairs, the congregation met for services at the nearby St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church. Lori Adelman, who served as president of the synagogue during the fire, says being back in the auditorium two weeks ago left her speechless.
“I was so overwhelmed with the energy in that room, the pure joy of our members being together,” she told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “It’s overwhelming the amount of love and care that’s gone into creating this new space.”
Sechriest started the fire on Oct. 31, 2021, just one week after banners with the words “Vax the Jews” were hung by a neo-Nazi group from an Austin overpass in an area near a number of synagogues and the local Jewish Community Center.
In April 2023, Sechriest pleaded guilty to two federal charges, including the destruction of religious property, which is a hate crime. The board of directors of the synagogue had endorsed a plea deal, arguing that it “means the defendant must admit his guilt in open court and allows us to begin to heal without the trauma of being put through what would most likely be a difficult trial,” synagogue leaders wrote to their members.