LOWELL – What does a Jewish community do after one of its elected School Committee members calls a former city employee a “kike” on live TV?
That’s the question many are asking in Lowell, after Robert Hoey Jr. appeared on a public access show and uttered a slur about the school department’s former chief financial officer. “We lost the kike, I mean the Jewish guy. I hate to say it but that’s what people used to say behind his back,” said Hoey, on Feb. 24. The slur, which also repeated an anti-Semitic trope, connecting a Jew with finances, went unchallenged by guests and the program continued on for another 85 minutes.
On Feb. 26, Hoey announced his resignation. While local Jews welcomed his departure from city government, area Jewish leaders – led by Rabbi Robin Sparr, of Temple Emanuel of the Merrimack Valley in Lowell – called for Lowell to swiftly implement anti-bias training for all city officials and employees. To date, there’s been no announcement of such plans by the city.
“It’s a bit disappointing. As far as I can see the city has not moved to adapt anti-bias and anti-racist training more broadly,” said Sparr, who leads Lowell’s last synagogue, of 50 families. “My hope is that we will continue to build bridges across other groups that feel this is important and to keep bringing pressure on the city.”
Lowell’s next steps to address the incident are unclear. While Lowell Mayor John Leahy, Lowell City Manager Eileen Donoghue and School Superintendent Joel Boyd originally denounced the incident, they did not respond to multiple interview requests from the Journal.
Jews have had a presence in Lowell since the 1830s, and in this hardscrabble city anti-Semitism was so common in the early 1900s that Lowell officially refused to allow Jews to bury their dead within the city. Undaunted, Jews built cemeteries in Pelham, N.H. and in Chelmsford along the Lowell border.
As the decades wore on, Lowell’s Jews prospered. Initially, many Eastern European Jews came to Lowell to work in the factories. But upon arrival, they declined those jobs after they were told they had to work on the Jewish Sabbath, according to Robert Forrant, a professor in the History Department at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
Instead, many tried their luck as junk and rag dealers and eventually expanded into other businesses. By the early 1900s, Jewish-owned stores formed the foundation of the downtown’s retail trade.
Jews also served the city as factory owners, doctors, lawyers and educators – and gradually overt anti-Semitism seemed to fade. Two Yiddish newspapers served the community and in the Hale-Howard section of the city and the Highlands, Jews built enclaves with well-attended synagogues that included Temple Emanuel, which still exists.
The Montefiore Synagogue – an Orthodox shul that also had a day school, closed last year – and the vaunted Temple Beth El, which also housed the Lowell Hebrew Community Center, closed in 2004 and merged with another temple to become Congregation Beth Israel in Andover. Another Orthodox shul, the Anshe Sfard Synagogue was razed during Urban Renewal and merged with Montefiore. Still, by the 1960s, as many as 7,000 Jews lived in Lowell’s Highlands.
These days, no one knows how many Jews remain in Lowell. As the city’s economy changed, Jews left the Highlands for Chelmsford and Westford in the 1980s and ’90s. Gone are the days when Lowell’s Jews filled morning and afternoon minyans at its shuls; gone is the Hebrew School at Temple Beth El, and its ornate sanctuary, and the dances, and basketball and volleyball tournaments at its adjoining community center; gone are the pious congregants who crowded into the Montefiore Synagogue and its day school to study Torah and Talmud. And gone are the four kosher butchers, two kosher delis and kosher bakery that lined Chelmsford Street.
As Lowell’s downtown Jewish-owned furniture, clothing, shoe and hardware stores closed in recent decades, Lowell’s remaining Jews believe the melting pot of Greeks, French-Canadians, Portuguese and Cambodians still remains, with people living and working side-by-side. And many aren’t sure what to make of Hoey’s anti-Semitic slur.
“I think he [Hoey] made a stupid mistake, and you can’t judge a population by one person,” said Paul Garnick, 81, who grew up in the Highlands, and runs Garnick’s TV & Music with his brothers on Middlesex Street. It’s one of the last Jewish-owned businesses in the city, and was started by his family 84 years ago. “Traditionally, the city has been very accepting of Jews.”
“I was very shocked to hear a School Committee member speak so casually in a vile way,” said Howie Flagler, a former executive director of the Merrimack Valley Jewish Federation and president of the former Lowell Hebrew Community Center. Flagler lived in Lowell for 15 years before moving to Westford, and like Garnick, was surprised that a Lowell public official would utter words of anti-Semitism. Like other area Jews, he wants to know more about the people Hoey was referring to when the ex-school board member said others used the slur to refer to the former Jewish city employee.
Hoey did not respond to an interview request.
“I do hope that this act and reaction are being used as teachable moments in the schools and anywhere leaders convene,” said Laurie Mindlin, executive director of the Merrimack Valley Jewish Federation.
Jim Shainker, who formerly served as president of the Merrimack Valley Jewish Federation and Lowell’s Temple Beth El Brotherhood, now hosts a morning radio show in the city on WCAP. Like other local Jews interviewed for this article, Shainker said he had never experienced any blatant anti-Semitism in Lowell. He also wants the city to quickly address the incident with education and anti-bias training.
“The School Committee and the city has to react to it,” said Shainker. “They can’t just say it happened and forget about it. They need to say it’s still there, that there are still some people who use words of hate and we need to recognize that and teach people as to why it’s so hurtful.”
Steven A. Rosenberg is the editor and publisher of the Jewish Journal. Email him at Rosenberg@jewishjournal.org.