PEABODY — Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman said he and another rabbi were verbally accosted Saturday while they were walking on Lowell Street by the lead driver among a group of three or four loud pickups.
Schusterman said the driver slowed down, hurled swears and insults, and then threw at a penny at them.
"Walking and chatting while visibility Jewish was apparently too much for a bunch of pickup truck drivers," Schusterman wrote Monday in a Facebook post about the ordeal.
The post generated 320 comments of sympathy, sadness and encouragement. Schusterman later said he shared the story not looking for "sad face emojis," but to notify the public and "encourage others to stand proud."
It also spurred Mayor Ted Bettencourt to decry the incident and respond with immediate action in concert with the Peabody Clergy and Ministerial Association.
After speaking with association representatives, Bettencourt announced the city is planning a rally for peace, unity and inclusion on Wednesday, June 5, at 4 p.m,. on the steps of City Hall.
"I believe we need to make a statement as a community," Bettencourt said Wednesday evening after a Peabody School Committee meeting in the Higgins Middle School library.
"The incident described by Rabbi Schusterman is an act of hate pure and simple," Bettencourt wrote earlier on Facebook. "As Mayor, I ask our entire community to come together to condemn such despicable words and actions."
Schusterman, of Chabad of Peabody on Lowell Street, and Rabbi Sruli Baron of Tobin Bridge Chabad in Everett were headed to the Peabody bike path when the large pickup trucks with modified mufflers, one with red hubcaps, drove by them.
"The driver of the first truck slowed down and flipped us the birdie and yelled out (expletive) Jews,'" Schusterman wrote. "A moment later, he throws a penny out of his window and shouted another anti-Semitic slur something to the effect of 'go pick up the penny (expletive) Jew.'"
Schusterman said motorists have yelled things at him before, but "the angry and hateful vitriolic tenor was new and quite upsetting."
Bettencourt said the Clergy and Ministerial Association had been planning a unity event for June, but that Saturday's incident demanded "a more immediate response."
"We offer our support for Rabbi Schusterman and Rabbi Baron and we pledge to stand together with the Jewish community in the face of such hatred," he wrote. "The City of Peabody is and will continue to be a welcoming community which values inclusion, tolerance, and respect for all."
Schusterman did not see the incident as a reflection on the community.
"This is a city that celebrates their diverse culture," he said. The truck drivers, he said, could have just been passing through.
But Schusterman stressed that while the drivers' behavior is not normal, there is concern it could become so, leading to more violence and hatred against Jewish people. Anti-Semitism, he feels, is becoming more mainstream.
"There is certain behavior, if you do it enough, it becomes the new natural," he said.
A recent audit of anti-Semitic incidents released by the Anti-Defamation League showed 2018 was the second highest year for such incidents in the Bay State on record, with 144. There were three recorded assaults in Massachusetts in 2018, up from none in 2017, part of a rising national trend of assaults on Jewish people.
"It's suddenly becoming increasingly dangerous to be Jewish in America," said Robert Trestan, the Anti-Defamation League New England's regional director, noting recent arson attacks at Chabad centers in Arlington and Needham.
Trestan is concerned that just by being an observant Jewish person out for a stroll, as the rabbis were, "drives anti-Semites to hurl slurs at you."
"What's the next level of anti-Semitism after that? It's violence. That is why this is so important. It can't be ignored. If we ignore anti-Semitism now, we are opening the door to violence."
Trestan said it's important to report every anti-Semitic incident, and for communities to mobilize and push back on this kind of hate.
Schusterman's experience prompted lifelong Peabody resident Deborah Coltin to request a meeting with Bettencourt. A Holocaust educator, Coltin is executive director of the Lappin Foundation in Salem, a nonprofit with a mission to enhance "Jewish identify across generations," including a Youth to Israel Adventure for teens on the North Shore.
Coltin said she wanted to call attention to what had happened. This is a country that values religious freedom, she said, and such actions not only threaten a Jewish person's right to practice their religion, but "it threatens all Americans."
"I can't believe this is 2019," Coltin said.
Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @TannerSalemNews.