A Jewish woman in suburban Philadelphia woke up last week to a spray-painted swastika on her trash bin, and now her neighbors and strangers from other countries are rallying to support her by painting their own garbage cans with flowers, hearts, birds and butterflies.
It was a typical Aug. 19 morning for Esther Cohen-Eskin when she went outside and saw the Nazi symbol on her bin. She said she felt horrible and knew she was targeted because the sign didn't appear anywhere else in her Havertown neighborhood, where she's lived for almost 20 years.
"It's not like someone wrote some obscenity on my trash can or gave me the finger," she said in a telephone interview Thursday. "The swastika is such a deep-rooted sign of hatred for everyone, especially Judaism, that I felt so targeted."
She spoke to her husband and called police, who have begun an investigation.
She called a friend for advice and he told her: "The only way to triumph hate is with love." Hearing that, Cohen-Eskin, an artist, decided to paint over the swastika with flowers, and to stick letters in mailboxes asking her neighbors to paint their trash bins as well, turning symbols of hate into symbols of love.
"We decided that painting something over this ... it kind of made the swastika completely meaningless," Cohen-Eskin said.
In this tight-knit community of different religions and creeds, the searing symbol of hate made Cohen-Eskin's letter electrifying.
"I still get goosebumps," said Megan Connell, one of Cohen-Eskin's neighbors. "I had to explain to my three-year-old that someone could do something so ugly, and we took it as a family thing."
A local bar, Connell's mailman, and others spread word across town, and people online started passing around Cohen-Eskin's story. After she sent the letters, she went out for an art show — and came back to hundreds of messages and phone calls from people as far afield as Canada, Germany, and Ireland. Many sent pictures of trash cans they painted in a show of support.
A tough part of Cohen-Eskin's request was that neighbors first paint a swastika, and then cover it with images of love and peace. Connell said that part of the task was "very, very difficult."
"It's something you would never want to put ever, and not anything I ever thought I would be painting on anything," she said.
Connell decorated her bin with an owl to send the message that the neighborhood is watching, even at night. Other neighbors painted the word "unity" on their bins up and down the block.
"I was so sad and I just wanted to do anything I could do to help," said Jenny Farley, recalling how Cohen-Eskin and her husband brought banana bread to greet her when Farley moved next door eight years ago. "I think everyone came together and said, 'How can we support them?'"
Now, Cohen-Eskin wakes up every morning to new pictures of beautifully painted bins from all over the world.
"It gave me a whole new reassurance in humanity," she said. "I feel invigorated by all the love. It's exciting ... it makes you feel there's so much good out there."