After 10 years of serving as the mince-no-words executive director of the Anti-Defamation League’s New England office, Robert Trestan is moving on – and up.
He’s not going very far, though. He’ll continue to work out of the ADL’s Boston office, but in a new, expanded capacity as interim vice president of the Western Division, overseeing the organization’s response to antisemitism and other forms of hate on the entire West Coast.
“I’m super excited about it. Super excited,” Trestan, 57, told the Journal. “I think the New England region is at one of its strongest points now, and [we] want to scale many of the sorts of models [created] in New England. To bring them to a bigger scale.”
The Montreal-born Trestan, a dual citizen of Canada and the U.S., earned a law degree from the University of Miami School of Law and joined the ADL in 2005 as the Northeast civil rights counsel. He was appointed New England regional director in 2014, and will continue to serve on the Massachusetts Hate Crime Task Force and the New Hampshire Commission on Holocaust and Genocide Education.
His tenure as director has been marked by challenges unprecedented in recent times. When he first became director, he pledged to crack down on hate crimes on the streets and in cyberspace.
But that was before a gunman stormed into the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh in 2018 and killed 11 people as they prayed – an attack characterized by President Joe Biden as “the deadliest act in our nation’s history.”
It was before a Chabad rabbi was brutally stabbed in Brighton in July 2021, and before the hostage crisis in a Texas synagogue in January 2022. It was before antisemitic Zoom-bombing became a thing, and swastikas showed up regularly in schools. Not to mention last month’s debut of the Boston Mapping Project, which targets scores of Jewish individuals and organizations and calls for them to be “disrupted” and “dismantled.”
Antisemitic incidents reached an all-time high in the U.S. in 2021, according to an ADL audit.
“It’s become more extreme, because people are now not just talking about and thinking about [antisemitic incidents], but they are targeting Jews, and committing acts of violence,” said Trestan, a prodigious speaker, op-ed and letter-to-the-editor writer, and the go-to commentator on all matters relating to hate crimes in New England.
Most recently he took on the government of Iceland for allowing the Mapping Project to be hosted on an Icelandic web server. (See accompanying story, p. 1)
Still, “the demand for ADL’s resources and expertise has never been higher,” Trestan said. “And antisemitism and racism and white supremacy are constantly adapting to the moment. The challenge is to quickly pivot to respond to what is happening in the moment. What may have worked in 2013 may not work today.”
He said he’s made it a priority to create and nurture partnerships with other community groups advocating for justice, equity, and inclusion. “No organization can do this alone, and anyone who thinks they can is wrong,” Trestan said.
Trestan has been serving in his new capacity overseeing the West Coast on an interim basis since January 2020. Managing two jobs at once is “obviously a strain on him,” said Joe Berman, board chair of the ADL’s New England region.
“Two big jobs on two coasts three time zones apart. But he’s handled them both beautifully,” Berman said.
Trestan, he said, “is leaving big shoes to fill. He is an absolute fearless advocate for civil rights. He calls out hate every time he sees it.”
He noted that the ADL has been “the foremost Jewish organization to speak out against the Mapping Project and to take concrete steps to rebut it, and that’s all Robert. He’s built bridges with a whole panoply of civil rights organizations in New England, whether Latino, LGBTQ, African-American, Asian-American – they all stood by us in the Jewish community while we were under attack.”
He described Trestan as “dedicated and determined. His demeanor is quiet, but he demonstrates a passion for the work of ADL and making sure that mission is accomplished. He leads by example.”
Trestan will stay on until a new director is chosen; Berman hopes to have someone in place within a few months. What is he looking for?
“I’d like to clone him,” he said. “If we can’t scientifically do that by the end of the year, then I think we are back to the usual way of hiring someone.”
Linda Matchan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org