PEABODY – Earlier this week, the caretaker for a cemetery belonging to Temple Tiferet Shalom along Route 128 discovered two granite memorial benches that appeared to have been smashed with a sledgehammer in the days leading up to the High Holidays.
The temple said police are investigating what it is calling an apparent hate crime and increasing surveillance of the isolated cemetery property, which also contains two other Jewish cemeteries along a stretch of Route 128 north near the Danvers line.
“In what is apparently a hate crime, two stone memorial benches were destroyed, possibly with a sledgehammer,” the temple said in a statement. According to the temple, no other damage was reported.
“The congregation has notified the families who donated the benches in memory of their dear ones,” the temple said. “The temple has received expressions of support and concern from civic leaders, and has informed local Jewish organizations, who are increasing vigilance at synagogue buildings and other facilities.”
In an interview, Peabody Mayor Ted Bettencourt called the vandalism an act of hate. “Destruction of the memorial benches at the temple cemetery is an act of hate which has absolutely no place in Peabody,” said Bettencourt. “This desecration is an affront to the families of those who are memorialized at the cemetery, to our Jewish community, and to all Peabody residents.”
Rabbi David Kudan, the temple’s spiritual leader, emailed the congregation on Wednesday, Sept. 23, “of the sad and senseless act which occurred at the holiest time in the Jewish calendar.”
The temple has set up a fund to assist with the restoration of the benches and “to contribute to educational efforts to combat rising expressions of anti-Semitism and bigotry.”
“It could always be worse,” Kudan said, “but we are concerned and dismayed.”
Raising awareness of such acts is important, he said.
“It’s just a constant struggle to educate people and respond,” said Kudan, who noted that the vandalism occurred during the High Holidays, when Jews go to the cemetery to pay their respects to their loved ones.
Danvers resident and former Select Board member David McKenna, who runs the cemetery caretaker business of John M. Ross and Son, said he was at the cemetery on Sept. 12 flagging graves for the high holidays. That’s when he noticed a broken bench. It looked as though it had been backed into by a car.
On Sept. 17, two of his workers were mowing the lawn and reported seeing a second bench that had a crack in it, with a mark on the top that showed it had been struck by a sledgehammer. It was obvious the damage was intentional, he said.
“Who carries a sledgehammer in their car?” McKenna asked. McKenna also wondered why someone would do this, especially at this time of year.
He spoke with a monument company about using epoxy to repair the benches, but one of them has a crack through the lettering that would still be visible even with a repair. The benches would also not be safe to sit on if they were repaired in this way. They will probably have to be replaced. He estimated that the cost of both benches at over $1600.
Sam Tabasky of Middleton serves as president of the Lebanon-Tiferet Shalom Cemetery Association. The cemetery belonged to the former Temple Tifereth Israel in Malden when theReform temple merged with Temple Beth Shalom in Peabody in 2015 to form Temple Tiferet Shalom.
“We are obviously quite upset about it,” Tabasky said. “Initially, we don’t know what to think,” added Tabasky, who said it appears the vandalism happened in stages. Tabasky said McKenna found one of broken benches but they were not sure how it might have been damaged.
When they found the second cracked bench, the workers said it had not been like that the week before.
“It had to be done with a sledgehammer,” Tabasky said.