Sep 15, 2023 - News

Congregation Beth Israel heals after arson

The sanctuary repurposed original stained glass into art for its new prayer space.Photo: Nicole Cobler/Axios

In Congregation Beth Israel's new prayer space, light shines through brightly-colored stained glass.

  • Hanging in the center is the Ner Tamid — the eternal light, or sanctuary lamp — created with glass ribbons in every color of the rainbow, curving like flames toward the ceiling.

Why it matters: The stained glass is a reminder of the congregation's former sanctuary, which a man set fire to in 2021.

  • It will be on display Saturday when Beth Israel hosts its first in-person services at the campus for the Jewish High Holy Days since 2019.

Details: The stained glass windows previously hung above the doors of the former sanctuary, and broken pieces of the glass were collected after the fire to create the Ner Tamid.

What they're saying: "This piece, which was moved from the broken shards from this fire to replicate flames, really showcases the persistence of the Jewish people," Rabbi Kelly Levy tells Axios. "It's a reminder of what happened, but more so a reminder that we've come this far and we continue to persist."

Congregation Beth Israel's Ner Tamid, or Eternal Flame, hangs in the center of the new prayer room. Photo: Nicole Cobler/Axios

Catch up quick: The pandemic halted in-person services through 2020 and much of 2021. In October 2021, days before Congregation Beth Israel was set to return to in-person worship, a 20-year-old man set fire to the sanctuary.

  • In April, the man pleaded guilty to two federal charges for arson and a hate crime causing damage to a religious property.

What happened: The arson caused over $250,000 worth of damage to the 70-year-old building.

  • Plus, smoke damage and asbestos have led to code issues, and "if we were to simply go back into that space, just to rebuild as it is … it would require several million dollars," according to executive director Jake Cohen.
  • The new prayer space, which was formerly the social hall, will be used until the congregation decides how to rebuild the overall campus.

Between the lines: Antisemitic incidents are on the rise across the country, and Texas ranks fifth for hate against Jewish people, according to an audit by the Anti-Defamation League.

  • Austin hate crimes jumped nearly 60% in 2022, according to a report by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino.
  • Congregation Beth Israel installed bullet-resistant glass, film over the windows and key code locks on doors and it keeps security guards onsite when people are in the building, according to former president Laura Corman, who spearheaded the renovation of the social hall.

What's next: Friday marks the start of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, and Beth Israel will hold a sold-out service Saturday.

  • A live stream is available on YouTube.

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