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‘This is my community’: North Shore residents reclaim Danvers bridge tarnished by hate speech

Protesters said their goal was to reclaim the bridge as well as the town’s reputation.

Community members demonstrate against antisemitism to reclaim the bridge over Route 114 in Danvers that neo-Nazis tarnished on the 21st anniversary of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

DANVERS — Days into the Jewish New Year, Jews and allies from across the North Shore rallied on a bridge from which — less than three weeks earlier —a neo-Nazi group raised anti-Semitic banners over rush hour traffic.

More than 100 protestors gathered the evening of Sept. 28 at the entrance to the rail trail behind Danvers Indoor Sports. As they waited to begin marching to the bridge over Route 114, attendees shared homemade signs and High Holiday plans.

On Sept. 10, masked men had hung banners over highways in Danvers and Saugus, reading “JEWS DID 9/11″ and “DEFEND WHITE COMMUNITIES.” The Nationalist Social Club, or NSC-131, a self-proclaimed “pro-white, street-oriented fraternity” identified by the Anti-Defamation League as a New England neo-Nazi group, claimed responsibility.

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As they took to the bridge in response, attendees carried signs and banners calling for “UNITY IN OUR DANVERS COMMUNITY,” proclaiming that “THIS IS NO PLACE FOR HATE,” and declaring that “WE STAND WITH OUR JEWISH NEIGHBORS.” Drivers below mostly honked and cheered in support, but a few hurled insults and expletives.

Protesters march to the bridge over Route 114 carrying signs and banners.Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

Stephen Steinberg, 70, brought about a half-dozen family and friends to the march. Steinberg, who lives in Danvers, said he was proud to do so, but added that a generational gap in Holocaust awareness has fueled antisemitism.

“I believe in freedoms. I believe in the beauty of all different opinions, but people should respond when they see hate in any form,” he said. “It’s important to remember the history and act as a member of the human family.”

In contrast to the hate that brought them out, the crowd was warm and welcoming — attendees exchanged greetings of “Shana Tova,” a Hebrew phrase wishing a sweet year traditionally said around Rosh Hashana, which concluded the night before the rally.

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Debbie Coltin, executive director of the Lappin Foundation in Beverly, helped organize the march. As she guided attendees to the gate behind the Danvers Indoor Sports warehouse, she carried a tablecloth painted with the words “THANK YOU DANVERS FOR STANDING UP TO ANTISEMITISM.”

Coltin said the North Shore’s Jewish community is made up of tightknit pockets but relatively spread out. “But when something like this happens, we come together,” she said. “This is my community.”

Coltin praised the town’s government and non-Jewish residents for help putting together the protest. She said the night was “really driven by the town of Danvers.”

The idea for the march stemmed from a community conversation the prior week, according to Jasmine Ramón, the town’s director of equity and inclusion. She said residents wanted to make sure the hateful messages did not define Danvers to outsiders.

“I think it’s the first step to folks here really taking back their community,” Ramón said. “This might be reactive, but we’re really entering a proactive space.”

Wenham resident Jeremy Gross, 52, said he first heard about the march during Rosh Hashana services at Temple B’nai Abraham, a Beverly synagogue that has also been tagged with antisemitic graffiti in recent years. He called antisemitism “endemic” of the current political climate, but said that “doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stand up to it.”

“No Nazi should be allowed to do anything without the whole community rising up,” he said. “We won’t put up with it.”

As the crowd prepared to set off, Rabbi Michael Ragozin, leader of Congregation Shirat Hayam in Swampscott, said NSC-131′s messages came as little surprise in Danvers.

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“But I’m not sure it would come as a surprise to me anywhere,” he said.

Danvers and the surrounding communities have dealt with issues of racism and antisemitism for years, but the problem rose to an alarming level in 2020 and 2021.

Rev. Marya DeCarlen, center, shares closing comments at the conclusion of the "Vigil for Prayerful Witness and Healing" in November 2021 in response to a recent spate of antisemitic graffiti at Holten-Richmond Middle School and allegations of racism by the 2019-20 Danvers High hockey team. Erin Clark/Globe Staff

In November 2021, Danvers High School officials came under fire for concealing racist, homophobic, and antisemitic behavior by its varsity boys’ hockey team. Then in December, the high school suspended its wrestling team over allegations of hazing and racist conduct among its members. Swastikas and racist language continue to be graffitied on the walls of Danvers schools.

Lisa Dana, a 32-year veteran of the school district who served as its superintendent for 18 years, retired this year amid backlash over her handling of the hockey team’s alleged conduct.

But Ragozin said the North Shore has a “very strong set of institutions” that combat antisemitism, from Jewish schools to community centers. He highlighted Coltin’s Holocaust symposium, conducted with Danvers High School at the end of the last school year.

“There’s a really strong willingness and support within the civic community to address antisemitism and issues of hate,” he said. “I think, in part, that these public rallies help support that behind-the-scenes work.”

One protester showed off his sign to Ragozin. “I hope we don’t have to use that again,” the rabbi said.

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Shortly after 5 p.m., speeches by Coltin, Danvers officials, and members of the state Legislature kicked off the evening in earnest.

Dutrochet Djoko, chair of the Danvers Human Rights and Inclusion Committee, told the crowd he and other non-Jewish residents need to “condemn the hate with one voice.” He recited German pastor Martin Niemöller’s poem, “First They Came ...”, a post-Holocaust confession of complicity with the Nazi regime.

“When our community is suffering,” Djoko told the crowd, “we can’t go home, have food, have a drink, and be at peace with ourselves.”

The town is nearly 92 percent white, 1.9 percent Black, and 5.8 percent Latino, according to 2020 Census figures. It hosts more than 15 churches and two Catholic schools but no synagogues.

Speaking to the Globe, Djoko called Danvers a “great town” but recognized that, like the rest of the country, it is imperfect. He said what makes it unique is the willingness of the community to speak up against acts of hate.

“We’ll come back to the bridge as many times as we have to,” Djoko said.

Protestors make their way to the bridge. Carlin Stiehl for The Boston Globe

On the trail to the bridge, state Senator Joan Lovely, whose district includes Danvers, Peabody, Salem, and Beverly, walked alongside Representative Sally Kerans.

Kerans, who represents Danvers, told the Globe antisemitism and racism have always been there, although bigotry became more open after Donald Trump was elected president.

“When you don’t stand up against these things, then it becomes normalized, and that’s very dangerous,” Kerans said. “There are so many more of us than there are of those cowards who stood with that evil, vile banner. And we are going to keep showing up.”

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As the sun set over the bridge, Coltin noted the significance of the march’s timing. The period between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, known as the Days of Awe, is a time of introspection and repentance for those in the Jewish faith.

“I think this is a very meaningful time for this to happen. Look back, do better,” Coltin said. “This is community moving forward.”


Daniel Kool can be reached at daniel.kool@globe.com. Follow him @dekool01.