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Last Halloween, someone tried to burn down our synagogue

The alleged arsonist was only 18 years old at the time of the fire. How could someone so young be filled with rage?

Oct. 31 marks the one-year anniversary of an arsonist attempting to burn down our synagogue, Congregation Beth Israel. For me and for our Jewish community in central Austin, Texas, Halloween now will always have a somber undercurrent.

Luckily, a passing motorist saw the initial flames, called the fire department and averted a disaster. Most of our synagogue was saved, but the extensive smoke damage left our sanctuary unusable for at least the next several years. Our congregation, founded in 1876, now worships in a temporary space in our education building.

The shock of this incident reverberated across the community. Donations came in from around the globe to help repair the damage. Other places of worship offered their facilities for our High Holiday services.

What has haunted me over the last year is how someone so close to my sons’ age could end up so filled with rage and animosity. I have twin 15-year-old boys, one of whose favorite holiday is Halloween. When he was younger, he would empty his candy-filled pillowcase onto the living room floor and compare that year’s haul to the previous year’s bounty, a child’s measure of consumer sentiment.

He loves dressing up as an evil clown or a sad ghoul, and we have two large containers full of decorations that he displays throughout the house and in the front lawn. Most of all, he is enamored with how neighbors willingly hand out seemingly endless handfuls of free candy.

His twin brother has significant special needs requiring 24-hour care; he has always been content to sit on the front porch, wave hello, and help to pass out our own candy.

When the attack happened, our typical son wondered why someone would do such a thing on Halloween. Our special-needs son could not comprehend why he could not go to temple to sing prayers, one of his favorite weekly activities.

The synagogue’s security cameras were able to capture footage of the arsonist. After a relatively short investigation, he was arrested, and now faces federal hate crime charges. What was most shocking was that he was merely 18 years old, only three years older than my boys. He could have been on the same playgrounds as my children, could have trick or treated in the same neighborhoods.

I’ve tried to rationalize the attack, but I shouldn’t be surprised; antisemitism has become normalized. Kanye West, now Ye, has a social media following twice the size of the total global Jewish population and spews antisemitic bile; Members of Congress openly talk about “Jewish space lasers” and establishing a white Christian nationalist state, or make incendiary statements about Israel. When a former president tells American Jews to “get their act together … before it’s too late,” we’ve entered a dangerous timeline.

When my own father was a schoolboy in Frankfurt, Germany, the Jews were slowly separated from their non-Jewish friends and had to wear markings indicating they were Jewish. Then, the Jews had to go to Jewish only schools. Finally, the Jewish schools were closed, and eventually, most of the Jewish population was killed. This happened gradually, but the ultimate result was devastating in loss of culture, education and of course, life itself.

This year, Halloween falls a week before our midterm elections. Even with the seemingly endless division of our current times, we still live in one of the longest-standing democracies in the world, with over two centuries of plurality and progress.

The doorway out of an era of intolerance has always been through the voting booth.  The solution to our current crisis of antisemitism is to vote: for candidates who fight for acceptance rather than embrace division. For candidates who want to build us up collectively rather than tear us down individually. And ultimately, for candidates who represent our best promise and our brightest future, regardless of political affiliation.

This Halloween, our kids will attend the annual neighborhood party and then their respective Halloween activities. However, I will be thinking about what could have happened if that motorist had not passed by our synagogue. Would it have been destroyed, like the synagogues of my father’s hometown?

I will also be thinking about what more I can do to halt the rise in antisemitism, either at the ballot box or by speaking out.  And I will be thinking about my dad, who never imagined “it” could happen here.

To contact the author, email [email protected].

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