Hundreds of Boston Apartments Marked with Yellow Circles

Photo credit Julie Masis

By Julie Masis
eJewish Philanthropy

The Boston-based Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly apologized for marking hundreds of apartments with yellow signs this winter.

In December, the Jewish organization marked the doors of apartments where Russian speakers live with yellow circles, the doors of Chinese speakers with red circles, and the doors of English speakers with green circles in its Boston housing complex. In February, the circles were removed after complaints from Russian-speaking residents and inquiries from the Russian Boston Gazette, a newspaper that caters to the Russian-speaking community in Boston.

“At first I didn’t pay attention to the circles, but later on I began to think about the yellow color, about the six million victims, and about the yellow stars,” said Tatiana Fainberg, whose apartment was marked with a yellow circle. “I tried to make myself think that the yellow circles look like the sun. Why don’t they make me think of the sun? But when they put them on doors… I don’t think it was a good idea to put them on doors.”

The different-colored circles were put on the doors to save paper when Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly employees deliver the calendar of events, which is printed in different languages, to the residents, explained the spokesman for JCHE Eugene Slavin.

“It’s a very helpful tool, because we need to know how to communicate with the residents,” Slavin said. “We also do that so that when maintenance personnel go in, they know which language to speak.”

He confirmed that several elderly Russian-speakers complained about yellow circles. He did not specify how many complaints were received.

None of the Chinese people complained about the red circles, he added.

In Boston, approximately 500 apartments where Russian-speakers live were marked with yellow circles. In Newton, where JCHE has two buildings, yellow circles marked the apartments of English speakers, many of whom are Jewish. Red circles identified Chinese apartments, and green was used for Russian residents.

Vladimir Foygelman, the president of Center Makor that organizes cultural activities for Russian speakers in the Boston area, said that whoever decided to mark the apartments of Russian-speakers with yellow circles made a bad decision.

“For the Americans, the yellow color is just a color, but for us, it makes us remember the Holocaust and the yellow stars,” Foygelman said. “During the Holocaust, Jews had to wear yellow squares and yellow stars, but at first they just had to wear a yellow badge. I think maybe somewhere they also had to wear yellow circles.”

Indeed, after the occupation of Yugoslavia in 1941, Jews were forced to wear yellow circles inscribed with the letter “Z” – because the word “Jew” in the Croatian language is “Zidov.”

Jews were also identified with yellow circles many centuries before the Holocaust. For example, starting from the 13th century in France, Jews had to wear yellow circles on their clothes in the front and back. The same practice existed in Spain and in Italy during the Middle Ages, according to information on the website of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Foygelman suggested JCHE chose the wrong color. They should have used blue or purple instead of yellow, he said.

But Chabad Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman, in Peabody, Massachusetts, said that the problem is not just with the color, but with the whole concept.

“I can see why people would be bothered because it’s almost like a form of ethnic profiling,” he said. “It would have been better to just keep a private list to deliver (language-specific materials) to these addresses, rather than have it in a public setting.”

While the colored circles are most likely “just an insensitive oversight,” Rabbi Schusterman suggested that the family members of the elderly people “should investigate to determine that there’s nothing else going on there.”

In its January newsletter, JCHE apologized for the yellow circles.

“We wanted to make the work of those who deliver our calendars easier,” says the newsletter that JCHE sent to its residents in January. “We regret that this offended or upset some residents.”

Slavin promised that JCHE will change its ethnic identification system, although he did not say when it will be changed or how.

“We need some sort of mechanism to figure out which language the residents speak,” he said.

Despite the controversy, not all Russian-speaking residents were upset about the circles.

“I welcome the circles near the apartment numbers – it helps me to know where other Russian speakers live,” said Lidia Kozyreva, 82, one of the residents whose apartment is marked with the yellow sign.

It appears that nearly half of the residents in Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly (JCHE) in Boston are Chinese. Why are so many Chinese people living in a Jewish housing complex?

Slavin explained that the reason is that the organization is non-sectarian.

“We don’t discriminate based on background. We were founded based on Jewish values, by Jewish philanthropists. We accept people of all backgrounds, regardless of race, ethnicity or religion,” he said.

There is an income and age requirement in order to qualify for a subsidized apartment in a Jewish Community Housing for the Elderly building. Many of those who qualify are immigrants.