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Criminal Justice

The Austin Fire Department is looking for a suspect in the antisemitic arson at Beth Israel

Austin Fire Department Asst. Chief Jeffrey Kennedy (left) and Capt. Brandon Jennings discuss a fire investigation at Congregation Beth Israel, at at B’nai Abraham Synagogue on Monday
Michael Minasi
/
KUT
Austin Fire Department Asst. Chief Jeffrey Kennedy (left) and Capt. Brandon Jennings discuss a fire investigation at Congregation Beth Israel, at at B’nai Abraham Synagogue on Monday

The Austin Fire Department is asking for help identifying a man in connection with an arson at Congregation Beth Israel synagogue earlier this week.

AFD said the suspect, described as a white male with a "thin build [and] brown hair," was seen carrying a 5-gallon "jerry can," a military-style container typically used to carry gasoline, according to a flyer released Wednesday morning. The fire came after a rash of antisemitic incidents in the Austin area.

Investigators said the man was seen on the Central Austin synagogue's surveillance footage around the time the fire started, just before 9 p.m. Sunday. AFD said he was driving a late-model Jeep Compass. It's asking anyone with information on the suspect to contact investigators at 512-974-0240.

Investigators said the suspect used an accelerant to start the fire at Beth Israel, which caused $25,000 worth of damage. They said the synagogue's cement edifice prevented the fire from doing more damage.

Elected officials and faith leaders on Monday denounced the recent incidents of antisemitism, including an out-of-state neo-Nazi group draping antisemitic banners along MoPac and antisemitic graffiti at Anderson High School late last month.

District 10 Council Member Alison Alter said Wednesday that she'll direct City Manager Spencer Cronk to retool how the city — and police — respond to antisemitism and other instances of hate speech and discrimination. Austin police were initially criticized for their response to the MoPac incident, after images on social media showed one officer fist-bumping a man wearing Nazi garb.

Alter, who represents the district where Beth Israel and the MoPac overpass are located, said she's been "disturbed by the increasing levels of antisemitic hate" in Austin. She and her family are members of the synagogue.

"I ... have asked for a briefing on the City’s current protocols and legal options for responding to incidents like these," she said. "I look forward to unanimous support from my Council colleagues. It is critical that as a city we join in a united front against hate and make clear that these acts do not represent our community values."

Alter will put forth the resolution at Thursday's City Council meeting. If passed, Cronk will have three months to report back.

Got a tip? Email Andrew Weber at aweber@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.

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