I got an email today from Brenda Swain, the executive director of the Falmouth Service Center. Ordinarily this wouldn’t surprise me. Since I began to volunteer at Hand in Hand, the Thrift Shop whose profits support the Service Center, I’ve received regular emails that Brenda sends to the hundreds of volunteers who work with her.
Her emails usually give us news about the programs at the Center and are always filled with appreciation and praise for our work. But Brenda is on an extended medical leave because she was diagnosed with stage IV stomach cancer this summer. She’s been open and honest with us about her diagnosis, and we all know she’s been having a rough time. So, I didn’t expect today’s email. In it she thanked us for our work, and expressed her comfort and confidence that the staff and volunteers will keep things running smoothly in her absence. Meanwhile, all of us who’ve worked with Brenda are in awe of her accomplishments and her devotion to the community, and devasted by her illness.
A friend recently asked Brenda what it was that made her so focused on doing so much for the community. Brenda had a simple answer. “My religion,” she said. “In the Jewish religion, we’re taught to do good deeds. The purpose of life is to improve the lives of others. That’s what I’ve always tried to do.”
And that’s exactly what she’s done. Her projects at the Center have included not only feeding those in need, but providing education in nutrition, offering financial support and budget workshops, providing children with clothing and school supplies, as well as orchestrating holiday meals and gifts. A small but devoted staff, and hundreds of volunteers have worked with her. Many of them are members of the Falmouth Jewish Congregation. The same congregation which was targeted by a hate-filled stranger on the day after Yom Kippur who, in the darkness of night, left an Israeli flag spray-painted with a swastika and symbols of white supremacy in front of the synagogue.
Anti-Semitism isn’t new. And it would only distress all of us to have me cite the incidences of anti-Semitic violence that have increased in the past three years, reaching a crescendo with the massacre at the Tree of Life in Pittsburgh one year ago. But this time it happened in our backyard. I know the rabbi who found the flag, and many of the members who now feel shaken and afraid. Brenda Swain is among them.
If you’d asked me two weeks ago if anyone who lived in my town could do something like this, I would have said there was no way, not even a chance. Not everyone here has the same beliefs, but no one in Falmouth could be filled with so much hate. But the truth is, I might have been wrong. The hateful human being who performed this heinous act might live in my neighborhood or in Brenda’s. We might have seen him at the Stop and Shop, or passed him on the bike path. We didn’t notice his hate because he keeps it hidden. Hidden until maybe he’s on line, chatting with people who fuel it until he sneaks out into the dark of night and leaves a desecrated flag for innocent strangers to find the next day.
We can’t help but be saddened and dispirited by the acts of a hateful coward. As we protest and voice our outrage and try to right this terrible wrong, I remember the words of a famous Jewish man. It was Jesus who said, “You are the light of the world, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works”. Let’s do what Brenda would do.
Natalie Mariano is a retired physician, now a regular volunteer at the "Hand in Hand Thrift Shop." This essay was edited by Viki Merrick and produced by Atlantic Public Media - our production partners here in Woods Hole.