While taking down Sukkot decorations at Brith Sholom House about three weeks ago, social services coordinator Michael Schaeffer discovered something unexpected: a swastika carved into the rec room wall.
Neighboring a shelf of board games and disheveled cards is a small, thin swastika crudely and lightly etched into the wall.
Intentionally or no, the symbol was rendered in the Navajo style – the mirror image of the Nazi symbol — which is an avatar for healing rituals. Whatever the message, Schaeffer and the rest of the retirement community were shocked and outraged.
Schaeffer doesn’t suspect any of the nearly 300 senior citizens living in the Conshohocken Avenue building of vandalizing their own home.
“We really care about each other here in our community. Whether they’re white or black, it doesn’t matter. We’re going to keep on working together and not let something like this challenge us,” he said.
It is unknown how long the mark has been carved into the wall, but Schaeffer immediately took corrective measures once it was discovered. Schaeffer reported the vandalism to the police and with ADL after its discovery, and then organized a diversity day event that took place at Brith Sholom on Nov. 12. A crowd estimated to be around 70 strong, comprised of residents and others, listened and learned from speakers from all over the community, including religious leaders from Islamic and Christian backgrounds and representatives from the Zionist Organization of America, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Crossroads Hospice and the Anti-Defamation League.
Robin Burstein, ADL associate regional director, spoke at the event educating people about what to do in these situations.
“It’s always a shame when these incidents happen. The most important thing about when these incidents happen is how you respond to them,” she said. “Michael did the exact right thing – he took the steps that were necessary to deal with it and then is trying to turn it around and make it a learning experience for the community.”
Associate Minister Lester Fields, from Sharon Baptist Church, also spoke at the event about equality for all.
“We have to find a way to properly save our world from any future Holocaust before time runs out because time is the one thing common to everybody’s religion, common to everybody’s race, common to everybody’s gender, common to everybody’s profession,” he said. “It is all in our best interest to promote fairness and honesty, tolerance and respect for all humanity.
“Whatever our personal beliefs are, we [need to] find common ground and hold onto that common ground as much as we can, and where there’s differences, let’s simply agree to
disagree,” he added.
Irene Paul was shocked and upset to hear what was carved into the wall. She has been a resident at Brith Sholom for 12 years, calling it her second home.
“This really hurt when we saw this. It wasn’t done on the outside, which wouldn’t be good either, but it was done on the inside. It’s very direct,” she said.
Paul assumed the defacing must have been done by a visitor because she can’t imagine any fellow resident defacing the rec room.
“I can’t believe it’s anybody from here. I really don’t think so,” she said. “We’re living under one roof; we’re like one big family.”
Schaeffer said he’s seen a lot of pain and conflict during his time working at the retirement home, but nothing like this. “I know it seems so little, but I’ve never seen this before.” He knew it was incumbent upon him to show the community that they will not be intimidated by these tactics.
“I want to let people know that we’re not going to just do nothing,” he added. “This is 2015. It’s not 1939 anymore. But the way the world is, I want to teach my daughters the same thing: This can’t be tolerated.”
At the end of the diversity day, they concealed the symbol with a plaque as opposed to covering it up with paint or plaster. Schaeffer said it’s a way to best evil with an act of goodness. “In Deuteronomy, it says ‘choose life’ and it sort of says ‘choose goodness over evil’ – that’s what I want them to do here.”
The blue-and-gold plaque quotes John F. Kennedy: “Our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this planet, we all breathe the same air, we all cherish our children’s future and we all are mortal.”