10/21/19 8:38 a.m. Update: This article has been updated to reflect a correction about the sculpture, and include an additional guest
On Oct. 11, Hagerstown dedicated the Thomas Kennedy Park and Statue. Gov. Larry Hogan, Sen. Ben Cardin, Sen. Van Hollen and Rabbi David Saperstein were in attendance, among other community leaders.
Rabbi Ari Plost, 43, of Congregation B’nai Abraham, spearheaded the idea. He first learned about Kennedy in a class on Jewish history. Thomas Kennedy, a Hagerstown-Washington County legislator in the early 19th century, 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 Plost, whose vision for the park includes a learning center where educators could hold history classes.
In 1826, after eight years of fighting, Kennedy managed to pass “An Act to Extend to the Sect of People Professing the Jewish Religion the Same Rights and Privileges Enjoyed by Christians,” familiarly known as the Jew Bill, in the state of Maryland.
“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.
According to Herald Mail Media, Hagerstown City Council provided space for the park and financial assistance of over $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.
The Baltimore Jewish Council’s Howard Libit praised the park’s location, noting it was across from a synagogue. “It’s an important stop for everyone who wants to better understand the work of one of Washington County’s great leaders,” Libit said.
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 behind his hat in the statue.
“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 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.”