Synagogue Arsonist Gets 10-Year Sentence

Congregation Beth Israel finally gets closure

After the fire in 2021 (Provided by Lori Adelman)

Wednesday, a federal court in Downtown Austin handed down a 10-year sentence for Franklin Sechriest, the arsonist who started a fire at Congregation Beth Israel in October 2021.

In April of this year, Sechriest pleaded guilty to two federal charges – arson and destruction of religious property. After serving time, he will have a three-year supervised release. He must pay $450,000 restitution, and the car he used to commit the arson was forfeited. Judge David Ezra doubled the parole board’s sentencing guideline of 60-63 months for this type of crime to 120 months, and recommended Sechriest be committed to a federal medical facility.

About 20 members of Congregation Beth Israel were at the sentencing. Lori Adelman, who sits on the board of the congregation and was president when the arson happened, says “it was a hard hearing to sit through, there was a lot of detail. Some of the folks who were here were hearing all of it for the first time. This was a terrible act. We are glad to see justice was done, but nobody was celebrating.”

Adelman says the congregation wasn’t hoping for any specific sentence: “We're more than 600 families, so that's thousands of people. Everybody has their own opinion about how they want[ed] to see the case turn out. … I think we're all pretty clear that time in prison is punishment, it's not rehabilitation. He’s not going to come out less hateful.”

She said the desire shared by everyone in the congregation was to see Sechriest take responsibility. “We wanted him to own up to his actions, his intentional hatred, and arson. I feel like having him sentenced is the last piece I needed to close the door on this chapter so I can look to the future and not have this hanging over my head,” says Adelman.

Sechreist, who committed the arson when he was an 18-year-old Texas State student, did apologize during the sentencing. Before the hearing, the judge considered around 40 written victim impact statements, Adelman’s among them. In it, she describes having to sit her 9-year-old daughter down and explain antisemitic hatred, which “was almost as abstract to her as the Holocaust – something that happened before, to other people, someplace else. But now suddenly something happened to us. Despite telling her I was safe and eventually that Mr. Sechriest was arrested, she asked about others who hate Jewish people and why they keep trying to hurt us. For all that we talked about, there are so many more things I hope she never knows.”

The arson came during a dark flare up in antisemitism in Austin – just a week after neo-Nazis hung banners reading “Vax the Jews” from an overpass, and antisemitic graffiti was found at Anderson High School. Adelman says Beth Israel has since upped security: “We take trainings, active shooter drills, Stop the Bleed, and situational awareness. Those have just become part of the way we have to worship.”

However, Adelman says the support the congregation has received since has been “fantastic – when we weren't able to worship in our sanctuary, we held services at St. Matthew's Episcopal Church, and they were so gracious to us. One of the first groups to make a donation to us was the North Austin Islamic Cultural Center. The interfaith community has come out [in support].” Local elected leaders “are taking this seriously” as well, says Adelman. In July of this year, the city launched an anti-hate campaign, where people can report suspected hate crimes to APD and the Anti-Defamation League-Austin.

The damages, mostly concentrated at the door, were originally estimated at $25,000 – the fire was seen from Shoal Creek by a passing driver and extinguished minutes after it began. However, Adelman says they didn’t take into account smoke damage, and “then you realize it was a 60-year-old building, so before you can rebuild or repair, you have to get it up to code. So that's a whole ‘nother round of things that weren't anticipated.” After all that, the cost to rebuild is pushing $1 million, says Adelman.

So instead of rebuilding right away, the congregation has decided to take a pause and consider more overarching plans for expansion. “We decided to take this act of tragedy and turn it into an opportunity for us, and not just rebuild exactly the way we were. When the synagogue was built, we had 250 families. We've outgrown our base. We're taking this really tragic act and using it to spearhead a really thoughtful planning process into how we want to build for the future generations. How can we come back stronger and more resilient?"

Adelman continued, "We were hurt, we were scared. But we're not going anywhere. And we continue to welcome new members and embrace people. And we continue to speak out against hate in all forms.”

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