Community unites as ‘church’ pickets
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Community unites as ‘church’ pickets

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Members of Westboro Baptist Church protested outside The Jewish Standard’s office in Teaneck on Wednesday. JOSH LIPOWSKY

A handful of members of the Westboro Baptist Church descended upon northern New Jersey Tuesday and Wednesday picketing Jewish organizations and some schools and other public buildings.

The openly anti-Jewish and anti-gay organization began its New Jersey tour on Tuesday with visits to the former office of the New Jersey Anti-Defamation League, the JCC of Metrowest in West Orange, and the United Synagogue of Hoboken. On Wednesday the group protested at Rutgers University Hillel, the Kosherfest showcase at the Meadowlands Expo Center in Secaucus, the Jewish Community Center of Paramus, UJA Federation of Northern New Jersey in Paramus, and The Jewish Standard in Teaneck. The group had also scheduled stops at Elizabeth High School, New Brunswick High School, and Dickinson High School in Jersey City.

Fred Phelps created the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., in 1955. The organization is primarily made up of his children and grandchildren. It regularly stages protests around the country, appearing at military funerals and public events to promote its anti-homosexual agenda. Since April, the WBC has made Jewish organizations one of its main focuses.

Law enforcement groups as well as the Anti-Defamation League encouraged the targeted organizations not to counter-protest and to simply ignore WBC.

“It’s quite clear from Westboro Baptist Church – they don’t argue on this point – they simply seek publicity,” said Etzion Neuer, director of New Jersey’s ADL. “Counter-protests generate more media interest and give the church more opportunities to have their activities broadcast to the larger public.”

United Synagogue of Hoboken agreed with the advice and decided not to respond, said Rabbi Robert Scheinberg. Approximately 30 counter-protesters gathered across the street from the WBC picketers Tuesday evening, though the synagogue played no role in organizing them.

“We felt the proper response for our community – which was a decision many organizations have made – was not to counter-demonstrate,” he said. “It was a case where the head overruled the heart.”

Scheinberg praised local police for keeping the WBC and counter-protesters orderly. At no point did anyone inside the synagogue feel threatened, he said, nor were synagogue functions disrupted.

“I’m grateful to live in a country where there’s free speech,” Scheinberg said. “I’m happy to let the judicial system sort out where the line is between protected speech and incitement to violence.”

At Rutgers, students organized a massive counter-demonstration Wednesday morning that drew between 1,000 and 1,200 people, according to police estimates – far overshadowing the half-dozen WBC protesters. Initially, Hillel was going to take a hands-off approach, but after the protest received coverage in the student newspaper last week, students began organizing through Facebook. Hillel decided to take the lead and turn the rally into a show of unity at Rutgers, said Andrew Getraer, the organization’s executive director.

“The campus environment is very different from a local synagogue or JCC in that there are tens of thousands of people here who can do what they feel is necessary,” he said. “Once students spontaneously began to organize, the option of ignoring [WBC] and denying them publicity was no longer an option.”

The rally was more a display of unity among the school’s different religious and ethnic groups than a direct counter to WBC, said 19-year-old Sam Weiner, the son of Rabbi Arthur Weiner of the JCC of Paramus.

“It was amazing to see that many students from all different cultural, religious, and ethnic divisions come together in a Rutgers Hillel coalition to unite against the hatred that this group is espousing,” he said.

“We made this rally about Rutgers University,” he added. “This event was not about giving Westboro Baptist Church attention. This was about drawing attention to the fact that RU can stand united against hate.”

After about 20 minutes, WBC moved on to its next target, in Paramus. Instead of congregating across the street from UJA-NNJ’s building as originally planned, the organization moved to Century Road, closer to Yeshivat Noam.

WBC failed to disrupt daily business at the federation or the schools, and Joy Kurland, head of UJA-NNJ’s Jewish Community Relations Council credited the policy of non-engagement and the support from local police.

“Their support and assistance in lending whatever they could to alleviate our fears … were clearly evident from the beginning of the process,” she said. “They were phenomenal as far as … keeping everything under control.”

Four protestors appeared early Wednesday afternoon on Teaneck Road, near the Standard’s office. A small group of reporters showed up as well, to interview WBC members. The Standard chose not to speak with any member of the WBC and issued a statement on how it balanced its duty to report the news with recommendations not to give the group publicity.

“It’s news when a Jewish institution is picketed,” the statement noted, “and this is a newspaper. We debated how to handle the situation and decided to give them the least coverage possible. Although they demonstrated near our building, we followed the ADL’s advice and did not engage with them. It was not easy to withhold our natural repugnance toward these people but we felt it was important not to give them a larger stage. We also wish the wider media would not give them a platform for their hate.”

Neuer praised the wider community – Jewish and non-Jewish – for uniting in the face of WBC. Paramus Mayor James Tedesco visited the JCC of Paramus during the protest Wednesday, and UJA-NNJ received a letter of support from the Episcopal Diocese of Newark.

“The hateful words of the Westboro Baptist Church were met by a message of respect and tolerance and by opportunities to educate our community about this group,” Neuer said.

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More than 1,000 students, led by Sam Weiner, son of Paramus’ Rabbi Arthur Weiner, rallied at Rutgers Wednesday morning in a show of unity against the Westboro Baptist Church. Courtesy of Sam Weiner
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