Thomas Kennedy gets his due

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan speaks at the dedication of the Thomas Kennedy Park Friday in Hagerstown. Kennedy was a Washington County lawmaker in the 1800s who was successful in establishing a law allowing Jews to hold public office.
Photo by Colleen McGrath for Herald Mail Media

By Carolyn Conte

Corrected, Oct. 24, 2019

Thomas Kennedy, the Jewish community thanks you.

The 19th-century Maryland legislator was honored on Oct. 11 with a statue and a park in his name in his hometown of Hagerstown. Members of the Washington Jewish community, as well as Gov. Larry Hogan (R), Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Rabbi David Saperstein,
president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, came for the dedication.

As a state legislator, Kennedy fought to allow Jews to serve in public office, even though, as he said, “There are no Jews in the county from whence I come nor have I the slightest acquaintance with any Jew in the world.”

Yet he was adamant that even if there was only one Jew who sought office, “to that one we ought to do justice.”

“He was someone I think all of us can really be lifted up by, especially in such a time of division,” said Rabbi Ari Plost, of Congregation B’nai Abraham in Hagerstown, who spearheaded the Kennedy tribute. He learned about Kennedy in a class on Jewish history.

After eight years of fighting, Kennedy managed in 1826 to pass “An Act to Extend to the Sect of People Professing the Jewish Religion the Same Rights and Privileges Enjoyed by Christians” in Maryland. They called it the Jew Bill for short.

“He thought it was unfair that Jews couldn’t hold office, or have other rights,” said Thomas Riford, former executive director of the Thomas Kennedy Center. “Kennedy was a patriot, a poet and a proud American. He believed in freedom.”

As a strong advocate for religious rights, he wrote an apology to Jews in Baltimore when he failed at first to pass the bill.

Washington’s Maryland suburbs didn’t boast a Jewish community in Kennedy’s day. But they were represented at the dedication by Meredith Weisel of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, and Rabbi Jack Luxemburg, rabbi emeritus of Temple Beth Ami in Rockville.

According to Herald Mail Media, Hagerstown City Council provided land for the park and financial assistance of more than $100,000. Plost estimates the total cost was almost $500,000. The project, located at 53 E. Baltimore St., is part of the revitalization of downtown Hagerstown.

Toby Mendez sculpted the memorial statue of Kennedy. Mendez said that inclusiveness has always been important to him. “I just thought it’s straight up my alley.”

He completed the work a year ago, and said it was a powerful experience to see the public’s response to his work.

“Especially in these times, it’s important to love one another.”

Kennedy is holding a shofar, “subtly placed behind the hat,” Plost said.

In a draft design, Kennedy was holding a shofar, but that detail did not make it to the final version of the statue, which has Kennedy holding his hat.

“It should remind people that there is real good in America,” said Plost, “made possible by people of all faiths, made possible by Democrats and Republicans, rural and city, and all standing in solidarity against not just anti-Semitism but all forms of hate.”

State Sen. Andrew Serafini (R-District 2) added, “Opposite parties came together to support this; I’m proud to be a person of this community and state that can set aside foolishness.”

Carolyn Conte is a reporter for Baltimore Jewish Times, an affiliated publication of WJW.

Correction. The article originally reported that the shofar used the design of the statue was not included in the statue. The shofar is included in the statue.


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