Beachgoers at the Jersey shore looked to the sky and found an unpleasant sight Saturday afternoon — but it wasn't seagulls circling or dark storm clouds breaking the sun-soaked summer day.
It was two swastikas — one inside a Star of David — flown on a plane-led banner above the beach like an ad for a bar's karaoke night or a restaurant's seafood special.
"First I was like, 'Did I just see what I thought I saw fly by?'? " said Kim Silverman, 54, a Philadelphia woman who was enjoying the waves at Harvey Cedars on Long Beach Island around 3 p.m. when she looked up to see the symbol, long associated with the horrors of Nazi Germany, traveling across the blue sky. "I was shocked."
The swastika, it turns out, wasn't meant to offend — although it did, as police and Don Pripstein, president of the Jewish Community Center of LBI, received several complaints about it. It was part of the third annual Swastika Rehabilitation Day, a worldwide event sponsored by the International Raelian Movement, a cult religious group that, according to its website, believes that a Creator reveals itself via UFOs. Swastika Rehabilitation Day, said Las Vegas-based movement spokesman Thomas Kaenzig, aims to "educate people about the true meaning of the swastika."
"We're aware of the link that many people make ... with Nazi ideology, and that's why we do have this rehabilitation day to give the swastika back its true value," Kaenzig said, adding that the symbol is sacred in some religions and, at one point in time, stood for luck. "People say it's offensive, [but] it's like saying you can't use the cross anymore because the Ku Klux Klan abused it."
Kaenzig said the plane that flew as far south as Brigantine, N.J. on Saturday also flew over New York City as part of the day, and another swastika-bearing plane flew over Los Angeles. This was the first year that the group decided to fly the banners, he said.
"We would like to know the story behind it and what people are trying to do, but the initial image of it is obviously a scary thing for the Jewish people," the JCC's Pripstein said. "The desire may be to try and rectify it, but the image is still a scary thing."
Kaenzig said that the Raelians haven't decided whether they'll fly the banners again during next year's event.