JUNE 21, 2018, MARBLEHEAD – A priest, a rabbi, and a minister walk into a synagogue. All of them are wearing yarmulkes.
It sounds like the setup to a joke, but on Sunday, June 10, when eight members of the Marblehead Ministerial Association walked into Temple Sinai in yarmulkes and ceremonial robes, it was for a serious reason. In front of Sinai’s soaring Ark of the Torah, Pastor Mike Hamilton of the Christian Science Church in Marblehead presented Rabbi David Cohen-Henriquez with the Marblehead Ministerial Association’s Covenant, an agreement between the town’s faith leaders to combat anti-Semitism and discrimination.
For nearly three decades, the signed Covenant has been passed to a different house of worship in Marblehead each year. The Covenant was originally written in 1980, after Temple Emanu-El and Marblehead’s Eveleth Elementary School were vandalized with swastikas. For nine years, it was little more than a nice piece of stationery. Then came 1989.
In the early hours of July 25, 1989, vandals spray-painted six massive swastikas over the doors to Temple Emanu-El. They tagged cars parked near Temple Emanu-El and the JCC with swastikas, and slogans like “White Power,” “Burn the Jews,” “Mengele,” “Belson,” [sic] and “Skinheads.” “Happy Hanukkah” was written in between the swastikas on a particular van. In later months that year, anti-Semitic copycat attacks abounded. Swastikas and “Hitler is God” were seen spray-painted in several different locations. The Jewish Journal reported that damage from anti-Semitic attacks was more frequent and costly in 1989 than in any other year.
Helaine Hazlett, who was president of the JCC at the time, remembers it well. When she went in for an early morning meeting, other people at the JCC wanted to wash everything off. “[They] said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll get the custodians to wash it off before the kids come to camp.’ I said no. I want people to see this,” said Hazlett, who then worked with community leaders to plan an appropriate response, which included a 1000-person march from the JCC pool to Temple Emanu-El, and a strengthening of anti-discrimination task forces and educational programs.
The events resulted in the formation of an Ad-Hoc Task Force Against Anti-Semitism, which consisted of representatives from religious organizations, law enforcement, and town and school officials from Marblehead and Swampscott. The task force was divided into subcommittees to address how to improve security and educational anti-discrimination programming. The education subcommittee paid special attention to the Facing History and Ourselves curriculum in Marblehead schools, a curriculum that is still in use. In later years, the Anti-Defamation League instituted the World of Difference program, which provides anti-bias training to high school students.
The Covenant was also reinvigorated. In 1991, all of the faith leaders of Marblehead signed their names to the Covenant for the first time, and began the tradition of moving it to a different house of worship in Marblehead each year with an accompanying ceremony. In 2001, leaders re-signed it to honor the tenth anniversary of the first signing.
At the most recent Covenant signing, prayers, songs, and readings affirmed the Marblehead faith community’s commitment to tolerance and interfaith understanding. Deacon John Whipple of Star of the Sea read a prayer against racism. Sally Azimat Schreiber Cohn read a verse from the Koran asking that different nations and tribes learn to understand one another. Everyone sang the Shema and “hineh ma tov u ma nayim” together.
Although there has not been a slew of hate crimes as widespread as the 1989 spate, they are rising steadily. The ADL reported a 57% increase in anti-Semitic hate crimes from 2016 to 2017. Last July, anti-Semitic graffiti was spray-painted on the Marblehead causeway that included phrases like “KKK is here,” and “End the Jew.” In a heartening display, over 200 people showed up to an interfaith vigil led by the Marblehead Ministerial Association.
In a speech at the ceremony, Rabbi Cohen-Henriquez noted that he had just returned from a ceremony the New England Holocaust Memorial, which was vandalized twice in 2017. He pointed out that Jews remain the number one target of hate crimes in the United States. That’s why the work of the Marblehead Ministerial Association, which meets once a month, and sponsors interfaith dinners, breakfasts, and town-wide candlelight vigils after tragedies, is so important.
“We’re very blessed – not every town has this connection,” said Cohen-Henriquez. As the framed document affirming the town’s unwavering support for the Jewish community sits atop Community Road, the words that Helaine Hazlett spoke in 1989 come to mind: “Our hearts are heavy, but our spirits are high.”