PEABODY – Just days after a motorist yelled anti-Semitic remarks and threw pennies at two rabbis on a busy Peabody street, over 350 joined area clergy, law enforcement, and elected city and state officials to decry the incident and stand in solidarity with the city’s Jewish community.
“Last week’s incident is disheartening and so despicable,” Peabody Mayor Ted Bettencourt told the crowd. “It’s not who we are as a community; it goes against every value we hold dear. It’s an act of hate, pure and simple, and we come together today with one voice to condemn it.”
The incident occurred on May 25 when Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman, director of Chabad of Peabody, and Rabbi Sruli Baron, who leads Tobin Bridge Chabad, were out for a walk on Shabbat. Schusterman said a man in a pickup truck threw pennies out of his window and shouted anti-Semitic slurs.
According to the state’s Hate Crimes law, a perpetrator can be prosecuted if the offender acted with the intent to intimidate the victim or targeted the victim because of the person’s race or religion. In an interview, Peabody Police Chief Thomas Griffin said his department is investigating the incident but is unsure if charges could be filed. “It’s a balancing act we have to take,” said Griffin, who added that the perpetrator might be protected by first amendment speech rights.
“We need to turn darkness into light; sadness into happiness; negative into positive,” Schusterman said at the rally. The rabbi, who has lived in Peabody for more than 15 years, said that he would not be intimidated by the incident.
“How we react to negative things is the ultimate differentiator,” he said.
“Some are inclined to remove the visible signs of their difference – take off the yarmulke, hide the Star of David, take their mezuzah off their doorpost. That works for some but that doesn’t solve the problem of hate. People of color cannot remove their skin. People of other oppressed communities cannot hide who they are.
“So hiding your identity doesn’t fix anything. In fact, I think we need to do the opposite. We need to reinforce our individuality, stand louder and prouder in who we are. The real solution, however, is to root out hate.”
His wife, Raizel, said motorists have also disturbed her and her children during walks. “It’s frightening times for me because I don’t look outwardly Jewish, so I never experienced this,” she said. “I walk every Shabbos with my family to shul; my boys wear their kippahs and tzitzits and many times there’s just a car that will beep or scream something out the window, or some teenagers will say something on their bikes and it’s very bothersome.”
Lappin Foundation Executive Director Debbie Coltin, who helped organize the rally, said Jews need to be vocal about hate speech. “We have to confront it and call it for what it is and educate,” she said.
“We have to educate why it’s wrong, why it’s bad, and we have to be the role models because if Jewish people themselves don’t call it out; if we become desensitized to it, if we don’t respond to it proactively and not just always reactively by educating, nothing will change.”
Representatives of area Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League and Combined Jewish Philanthropies also spoke at the rally. “No one should need to think twice about proudly identifying with their cultural heritage or their faith,” said Shepard Remis, a Peabody native and CJP board member.
Marblehead’s Rhonda Gilberg, who chairs the ADL’s North Shore Advisory Committee, said it was important that all anti-Semitic incidents be reported to the police.
Steve Bornstein, of Peabody, believes more people need to be educated and aware of the impact of hate speech. “It’s very disappointing that people can’t be who they are and other people have the need to judge for no reason. And I think it’s right in our backyards so we have to give it a lot of thought and do the right thing and make people aware of this so we can minimize, and maybe stop the type of behavior that is offensive.”