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Diane Gensler
Life Member, Hadassah Baltimore

Antisemitism at the Sandwich Shop

Artwork courtesy of Hadassah.
Artwork courtesy of Hadassah.

Or a Slur with Your Side Dish.

I was visiting a very busy hospital in downtown Baltimore, and I went to the main level to get lunch. I found a sandwich shop/market that had groceries, subs, sandwiches, and a custom salad making counter. I was thrilled!

It was a Saturday, and the place was hopping. I knew I was coming back tomorrow, so I asked if they would be open then. The cashier and the sandwich maker started ranting very loudly in unison, “Oh, we’re always open. We never close. We’re open on Christmas, Thanksgiving, and every holiday. You name it. This place never closes.”

“Well, surely you get some vacation time?” I inquired.
“We’re always open.”
“Don’t you work in shifts?” I asked.
“This place never closes.”
“Surely you get some time off?”

That’s when the sandwich maker “laid it on thick!” And I’m not talking about mustard or mayonnaise, although I wish that were the case. “We never close because we’re owned by Jews,” she said.

I froze. I’m sure my eyes got wide. I know my jaw dropped. But probably nobody could tell because I was wearing a mask. Then I thought maybe I heard her incorrectly, since she too was wearing a mask. Maybe instead of Jews, she said the initials of the company or something of that nature. I couldn’t figure out how to ask what she said. For one thing, I didn’t want to hear it again if I heard correctly. I didn’t want to “rub salt in the wound” by asking her to repeat it and then maybe things would go even further downhill. There was a line behind me, and I couldn’t figure out how to have a discussion about it without inciting anger.  So I paid the cashier and said, “I hope you all get some rest.”

Then I thought about the incident for the remainder of the day and into the next. It “left a bad taste in my mouth.” (Sorry…I can’t help the food-related puns.) It really bothered me.

First, I felt bad that these employees were overworked and overtired. Perhaps they needed the money and couldn’t take any time off. But any work environment shouldn’t feel that way. It can’t be a good situation if your employees are complaining to customers about the work conditions.” I need to address this,” I thought.

Then, of course, I must deal with the antisemitic comment. These employees need to be educated. They need to understand that their perception of Jews is incorrect. How would they feel if someone said something like that about their race, color, nationality or religion? They need sensitivity training, perhaps also.

Who is the owner of the company, I wondered. Is he or she, in fact, Jewish? I looked up the company online. Their website yielded no helpful information. Apparently, the original company was bought out several years ago and is now owned by a big conglomerate.

I looked for contact information. They conveniently provided a form to comment or ask questions for any of their locations nationwide. I completed a form. I simply asked to be put in touch with the owner or manager of this particular store. I went to click “submit,” and it wouldn’t work. I tried several times. I looked to see if I missed a box or forgot some information. My form was perfect. I suppose it was a programming error. I would have to try something else.

I called the company’s corporate headquarters. I pushed the buttons that I thought would take me to their customer service. I ended up completing a two-question yes or no survey asking if I was satisfied with the service. Then I was disconnected.

I called again and pushed different buttons. Alas! I was going to be connected to customer service. I waited a half hour. (Good thing I had time.) Someone finally picked up.

“What? I can’t hear you,” she said.
I yelled into the phone.
“I only hear static. I can’t make out anything.”
“Is this a joke?” I thought. “They must really not want to talk to me.”
I yelled louder.
“Sorry. I can’t hear a thing.”
“Hello? Hello?!”

I heard nothing else. I don’t know if she hung up, we were disconnected, or she just stopped talking. I hung up the phone.

I filed an incident report online with the ADL. I figured I need to at least report this for tracking purposes. That’s what I learned when I l wrote about how to handle an antisemitic incident.  I was going to have to find the owner or manager of this store on my own. I went back to the sandwich shop and made a small purchase, as I’m always hungry! At the register I asked, “Do you all have a menu, or something written that I can have?” I thought maybe some literature might glean me some contact information.

“Use that paper over there,” the lady pointed. “You have to scan it.”
“Don’t you have anything else?” I asked. She shook her head.

I scanned the barcode, and a Grub Hub app came up on my phone. Of course, it was the way to order online. What was I thinking? Nobody uses paper anymore. There were no business cards. There was nothing in that store to put me in touch with anyone.

I returned the next day and took a different tack. What I said wasn’t a total lie.

“My son is looking for a summer job and may possibly want to apply here. Whom can I contact?” The lady just looked at me, probably because I was not the person she was looking for who ordered the sub she was holding.

“Is there a manager or owner I can contact?”

She pointed to a wall across the way and said that they are hiring, and the information is on that sheet. I wasn’t going down this path again.

Before she walked away, I asked if there was someone to whom I could talk. “Do you have a manager around?” She pointed to a second register that was not open the day before. “The guy working the register is the manager.” Progress!!

Even better was when I asked him if he was the manager, he replied in the affirmative and said his district manager was there today. He pointed to a lady standing only three feet away. Seriously?! Why did he tell me that before I even explained the problem? He probably didn’t want to deal with any complaints.

I walked over to her, and she asked what she could help me with. I told her I had a concern about the store. She said someone already came to her today and complained about the food. I told her my concern had nothing to do with the food but with the employees.

We were only a few yards away from the store, and I said I’d rather talk to her over the phone or somewhere else. She gave me her name and phone number. She told me the store is short-staffed. She said she oversees three districts and travels to different states. I couldn’t believe my good fortune that she was there that day.

She asked if I wanted to step outside with her, so we went outside, and I ended up telling her the whole story. When I told her how the employees were saying the store is open seven days a week, she told me that was correct. She misunderstood why I was telling her this story and thought the employees were not nice to me. I told her I was more concerned about their working conditions.

When I told her about the antisemitic comment, I told her I could have misheard. She said that if that is what I thought I heard, then that is probably what I heard. She said they were having a tough time getting employees. She did not make excuses for them, and she did not tell me I was mistaken. She was an excellent listener. She even explained to me recent developments in the company and how it may be changing again.

When she asked how I found her, I told her I had to ask the employees for their manager under false pretenses, but it wasn’t a total lie because my son is looking for employment. I was glad I mentioned it because she may be able to help with that also!

Overall, she said she would discuss the matter with the manager I had met and with another person she named, although I don’t know who that is. I felt reassured that she wasn’t going to wave me off like I was a mere complainer who liked to make trouble. She was even kind enough to ask me about who I was visiting in the hospital. I think this lady could give lessons on customer service.

She didn’t take my contact information even though I offered it. So, it was up to me to follow up. I received a phone call from the ADL in response to my report. The lady asked me to describe the incident, and I could hear her typing notes. She told me that the information will be submitted for tracking purposes. She asked if I wanted her to follow up, and I said I’d like her to contact the district manager to see what happened. She said she’d get back to me.

Meanwhile, I saw my synagogue’s rabbi and told him what happened. I needed his opinion. He thought I did the right thing. He said he would have written a letter to the company’s headquarters and then he’d never frequent any of their shops for the rest of his life!!

The lady from the ADL called me back a few days later. She said she found out that she wasn’t allowed to follow up with the district manager. Apparently, the ADL doesn’t take that kind of action unless a related incident happens afterward. She told me I could follow up on my own. I felt uncomfortable doing that, but I also felt it needed to be done.

Reluctantly, I picked up the phone and dialed the district manager the next day. She answered right away and had time to speak with me. She was still the same kind person she was in person. She remembered me right away. (Was that good or bad, I wondered?) She said she talked with the store director and the human resources manager. She said because I didn’t give her the names of the employees, she had to address everyone so she couldn’t address the antisemitic incident directly. I said I understood. She said they had been working with the employees on providing good service to the customers and being professional. That was all I could ask really. I was glad she took action.

We will never know if the actions she took will help to improve conditions or the attitudes of the employees, but we can hope. I could tell that she honestly didn’t want another incident like mine to happen again.

I was proud of myself for the lengths I took to address antisemitism. I felt that I “stood up to Jew hate,” an important cause supported and encouraged by Hadassah. Perhaps, to use the expression, “take a bite out of crime,” I took “a bite out of” antisemitism. Sorry…had to use the food reference one last time!!

Please note: Should an antisemitic incident happen to you, Hadassah’s website contains helpful information.

About the Author
Diane Gensler is a Life Member of Hadassah Baltimore and a lay leader in her synagogue. She is the author of Forgive Us Our Trespasses: A Memoir of a Jewish Teacher in a Catholic School (Apprentice House Press, 2020) and occasionally writes articles for organizations of which she is a member, such as the Jewish Genealogy Society of Maryland. She is a certified English and special education teacher. In addition to teaching in public and private schools, she developed educational software, tutored online and wrote and managed online curriculum. She is a Maryland Writing Project Teacher Consultant and a mentor. A native Baltimorean and mother of three, she leads the Baltimore Jewish Writers Guild and holds volunteer positions in her children’s schools and activities.
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