PEABODY – In the days leading up to the High Holidays, the caretaker for a cemetery belonging to Temple Tiferet Shalom off Route 128 discovered two granite memorial benches that appeared to have been smashed with a sledgehammer.
The temple said last week police are investigating what it is calling an apparent hate crime and increasing surveillance of the cemetery property, which also contains two other Jewish cemeteries along a stretch of Route 128 north near the Danvers line.
“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 a statement, 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.”
In an email, Rabbi David Kudan, the temple’s spiritual leader, informed the congregation “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.”
Raising awareness of such acts is important, Kudan said.
“It’s just a constant struggle to educate people and respond,” said Kudan. The vandalism occurred during the High Holidays, when Jews go to the cemetery to pay their respects to their loved ones.
Kudan said he spoke with Debbie Coltin, a Peabody resident and executive director of the Lappin Foundation in Salem, about the incident.
“It is disheartening,” said Coltin, who recalled what happened earlier this month when a virtual gathering of a Lappin Teen Fellows program was ‘Zoom bombed’ by someone making vulgar and anti-Semitic remarks. While the incident became a teachable moment for the young fellows, it was something she reported to the Anti-Defamation League and the police, who told her “they are seeing an increase of neo-Nazi activity in the area.”
Coltin said it’s important to speak up when someone perpetrates such hate and there needs to be more education about what’s going on. The foundation is hosting a virtual program with philanthropist Adam Milstein called “Anti-Semitism is here: What can we do about it,” on Oct. 7, she said. (For more information about the free program on Zoom, contact Susan Feinstein at 978-740-4431 or email@example.com.)
In relation to another apparent hate incident, the Associated Clergy of Cape Ann, including Rabbi Steven Lewis of Temple Ahavat Achim and the Rev. Sue Koehler-Arsenault of Annisquam Village Church, both located in Gloucester, hosted a “Repairing Our Spirit of Connection” event on Sept. 21.
The gathering was “in response to rising instances of public expression of hate, including a large swastika recently found drawn in the sand at Good Harbor Beach,” according to the Facebook invite. The Gloucester Daily Times reported the drawing was found on Sept. 1.
“My response to these incidents and threats is to bring the community together and find solidarity,” Lewis said in a brief interview.
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 workers were mowing the lawn and reported seeing a second bench that had a crack in it, with a mark on the top that looked like it had been struck by a sledgehammer. McKenna said it was obvious the damage was intentional.
Peabody Police Captain Dennis Bonaiuto said that according to the report, when the first damaged bench was reinspected, it bore the same mark consistent with being struck with a blunt object, possibly a hammer.
The benches will probably have to be replaced at an estimate of over $1,600, McKenna said.
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 the Reform temple merged with Temple Beth Shalom in Peabody in 2015 to form Temple Tiferet Shalom.
“We are obviously quite upset about it,” Tabasky said.
“It had to be done with a sledgehammer.”
Anyone with information can call Peabody police at 978-531-1212 and ask for a supervisor.