PEABODY — Under cloudy skies, more than 200 residents, clergy and politicians rallied on the City Hall green to fight hate as the Veterans Memorial High School Chorale sang John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
“This is a tremendous turnout and a great show of unity,” said Mayor Edward Bettencourt Jr. “By joining us, you help send a very powerful message that acts of hate will not be tolerated in this city.”
The mayor and the Peabody Clergy & Ministerial Association quickly organized the protest after Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman, co-director of the Chabad of Peabody Jewish Center, and Rabbi Sruli Baron, of the Tobin Bridge Chabad in Everett, reportedly faced slurs and taunts while walking on Lowell Street over Memorial Day weekend.
Attendees arrived at the afternoon event with signs that read “Thank you Mayor Bettencourt for standing up against anti-Semitism,” and “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference,” while a man handed out yarmulkes, a head covering for males of the Jewish faith.
One of the spectators was Jacqueline Torigian, the widow of former Mayor Peter Torigian, the longest serving chief executive in the city’s history.
“Peter created the Peabody International Festival as a way to celebrate the city’s heritage,” she said. “It was important for me to attend today so my children and grandchildren know it’s wrong to be prejudiced.”
Bettencourt welcomed the packed crowd and said Peabody has always been a place that accepts people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds.
“Our city was built by people who came here from all over the world looking for a better life for themselves and their families,” he said. “That melting pot community … has provided great comfort to our residents and is a tremendous source of pride for our community. That’s why last week’s incident is so disheartening and so despicable. It’s not who we are as a community and it goes against every value we hold dear. We come together today as one voice to condemn it.”
Rabbi Schusterman praised the city for its outpouring of support.
“Thank you for standing by the local Jewish community as I know you would do for any faith that was attacked and malagnied,” he said. “This is a rally against anti-Semitism and intolerance, but it’s not about me or Rabbi Baron. If this incident … caused today’s rally of goodness and more good things come from it, that would be enough.”
The rabbi said when he arrived in the city with his family in 2003, Peabody prided itself as no place for hate.
“Now, 16 years later, that slogan is being put to the test,” he said. “I stand before you today to say that has not changed one bit. Peabody remains a city where there’s no place for hate.”
Rabbi Baron encouraged everyone to pay it forward and do something good for someone else.
Rhonda Gilberg, chairwoman of the North Shore Advisory Committee for the North Shore’s Anti-Defamation League, began her remarks by noting this is her fifth North Shore anti-Semitism rally in the last 18 months.
“Anti-Semitism is at historic numbers and it’s becoming increasingly dangerous to be Jewish,” she said. “We are here because of the courage of this community to stand up and say no. We can’t fight anti-Semitism alone. It takes the entire community working together … we need to be vigilant, not be intimidated to combat hate in all forms regardless of race, religion, nationality, disability, or sexual orientation. We need to stand together to ensure justice and fair treatment for all.”
A report issued in April by the Anti-Defamation League found 2018 was the second highest year for anti-Semitic incidents in Massachusetts on record.
The survey found 58 Massachusetts communities recorded at least one anti-Semitic incident last year. The Bay State had the fourth highest number of incidents in the nation with 144, topped by California, 341, New York, 340, and New Jersey, 200.
“It’s suddenly fashionable to target Jews on the street,” said Robert Trestan, ADL’s New England Regional director. “It’s scary and dangerous.”
But the city’s response has been phenomenal, he said.
“One of the ways to respond to such things is courage, and that was demonstrated by the rabbis who reported it,” he said. “The other way is resilience, and the mayor made it clear we are stronger because this happened, we will come together and send a message right back that says this is not acceptable.”