Westboro Baptist Church Protests Near YU, Community Responds with Counter-Protest and Charity Campaign
This morning, the Westboro Baptist Church held a brief protest near Yeshiva University. From 9:30 AM until around 10:08, five members of the church stood in the rain between metal police barriers on Amsterdam Avenue between Laurel Hill Terrace and 181st Street. A number of NYPD officers were present securing the scene.
Based in Topeka, Kansas, the Westboro Baptist Church has achieved notoriety over the years for its aggressively anti-homosexual positions. Categorized as a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Church publicizes its travel schedule on its website called “godhatesfags.com.” The Church maintains that homosexuality is the primary sin of American society and that its normalization in mainstream American culture has incited countless acts of divine retribution including the 9/11 terror attacks and the deaths of soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The church announced via Twitter on February 27 that it would protest at YU in order to denounce the university’s acceptance of homosexuality. In its press release, the church asserted that the American Jewish community, YU modern orthodoxy apparently included, “was the earliest and most forceful group to spread the soul-damning lie of ‘It’s ok to be Gay.’” Westboro chose to picket YU in particular because YU “encapsulates the perverse state of both modern Judaism and the American university system,” the press release said.
Despite inclement weather--a steady rain fell during the entire protest--five church protesters showed up on Amsterdam Avenue this morning for the scheduled demonstration. The protest itself seemed less focused on homosexuality and more focused on the church’s belief that Jews are responsible for killing Jesus. Each member of the church held one or two colorful signs with messages such as “GOD HATES CHRIST-REJECTING APOSTATE JEWS,” “GOD HATES SIN ENABLERS,” and “JEWS WILL MOURN FOR CHRIST, WHOM THEY PIERCED.” One church member wore a sweatshirt with the words “God Hates America” on the back.
Though no church elders were present (elders are male and the five protesters were all female), the group’s de facto leader appeared to be Shirley Phelps-Roper. The daughter of Fred Phelps, the church’s founding minister who died in 2014, Phelps-Roper is a practicing lawyer and is known as one of the church’s most outspoken members. When asked why the protest was staged a block away from YU’s Wilf Campus instead of in a location more visible to students, Phelps-Roper explained that they wanted to demonstrate in a busy intersection where they would be noticed by passing cars and pedestrians, and insisted that the group was still within sight of YU’s indoor parking lot.
Explaining the purpose of the protest, Phelps-Roper elaborated on the sinful nature of America. “Any soldier fighting today is fighting for same sex marriage and for the right to be a filthy pervert,” she said. “The best that this country has to offer, including us, is like a used menstruous cloth.” She also expressed her disdain for Orthodox Jews, stomping on an Israeli flag that she initially wore around her waist while referring to it as “the star of Remphan.” She explained that rabbinic Judaism is “rebellion” as she condemned specific rabbinic practices such as the celebration of Hanukkah and the wearing of a kippa, urging one YU student to “get rid of the beanie.” At various points during the protest, church members sang songs condemning Jews set to the tunes of various Jewish songs such as Hatikvah, Hava Nagila, and Sabbath Prayer from Fiddler on the Roof.
Other church protesters were not members of the Phelps family. Two young protesters from Phoenix described how they discovered the church on YouTube two years ago, explaining that the message of the church “pierced our hearts.” They insisted that the church’s message is one of love. “People today don’t know what love is,” one young protester said. “Love is telling people what path they’re going down. I don’t want you to go to Hell.” At the same time, she qualified, “We’re not out here to save people.” When asked if protests sometimes require members to miss church services, she explained that protesters do sometimes miss Sunday services but they just read the sermon online.
In response to this protest, a number of people organized a counter-protest to denounce the Westboro Baptist Church’s anti-homosexual message. When the Church announced via its Twitter page that it would visit YU, a Facebook event called “Yeshiva University Welcoming Committee for the Westboro Baptist Church” was created, inviting hundreds of people to “Join us in welcoming the Westboro Baptist Church to The Heights!!!” Scheduled for the morning of the protest, the event urged participants to “Bring your gay, lesbian, trans, and all of the above loving Jew selves over to say a hearty howdy do to our visitors from the great state of Kansas.”
Though the rain might have discouraged some from attending this counter-protest, the event still garnered a significant showing. Around thirty-five counter-protesters showed on the opposite corner of Amsterdam Avenue and Laurel Hill Terrace, including approximately ten YU students and at least one YU faculty member. The counter-protesters arrived with signs of their own displaying messages such as “Hate is NOT a Yeshiva Value,” “LGBTQ Students are Welcome In Yeshiva U.,” and “Chosen People Choose Love over Hate.”
Asher Lovy, organizer of the protest and one of the hosts of the Facebook event, attended the counter-protest. He explained that the purpose of the event was “to make sure that the LGBTQ students of Yeshiva University wouldn’t walk out and see a message of hate that wasn’t countered by a message of love. The Westboro Baptist Church is a crazy fringe group, but there are plenty of people in the Jewish community and in the country in general who also hate LGBTQ people and are more than happy to spread a message of hate not connected to the Westboro Baptist Church.”
Despite the rain, Lovy was happy with the turnout. “We were expecting a couple more people,” he said, “but given the weather this was about as good a turnout as we could expect. And we definitely had more attendants than the Westboro Baptist Church did. So we’re very happy about this.” When asked if he had any reservations about the counter-protest giving the church more attention than it deserves, Lovy said, “It’s not just about the Westboro Baptist Church. It’s about countering the message that’s espoused by more than just the Westboro Baptist Church. If we get to use the Westboro Baptist Church as a springboard, great.”
On the other side of the street, Westboro Baptist Church member Shirley Phelps-Roper had mixed feelings about the attendance at the counter-protest. “I’m happy,” she said, “because the only way they’ll see the words is if they come out here and look. I’m thrilled that they’re here.” On the other hand, she said, “I’m so sad to see the awfulness of these children of Israel,” explaining that “The rest of you Jews will die with hearts of stone.”
In an announcement sent to students via email and posted on its Facebook page, Yeshiva University denounced the church protest: “We want to state in the strongest terms that Yeshiva University rejects and condemns the targeting of Jews and any human being based on religion, political affiliation or sexual orientation.”
The university also discouraged its students from engaging the protesters. “We urge you not to engage with the WBC; their success depends on the media spectacle created through counter protests, as well as lawsuits against those who interfere with WBC members. For your safety and to deny the WBC what they seek, we should shun them with silence and peace,” the statement read.
Students wishing to comply with the university’s wishes but also wishing to counter the protest’s message decided to organize a fundraiser for the Jewish Board of Family Services. Volunteers sat at stations around campus where students could make donations and a link was set up specifically for this response to the church. The decision to respond to the Westboro Baptist Church with a fundraiser was made at a meeting held on Monday, March 20 which was open to all students and led by YCSA President Tzvi Levitin along with Executive Director of the Office of Communications and Public Affairs Dr. Paul Oestreicher. Other charities suggested at the event were the Wounded Warriors Project and Jewish Queer Youth.
Zvi Teitelbaum, who spearheaded the fundraising efforts, said that the students behind the initiative “wanted to respond to the Westboro Baptist Church hate group in a constructive way. Instead of protesting, which would just give them the attention they wanted, we decided to run a fundraiser to support a group they disapprove of.”
In an email to Yeshiva undergraduates, Mr. Teitelbaum wrote, “all proceeds from this fundraiser will go to the Jewish Board of Family and Children Services, an incredible Jewish organization that provides programs and services that aim to promote well-being, resilience, and self-sufficiency for individuals and families from diverse cultures, ethnicities, religions, genders, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic backgrounds.”
As of press time, nearly $300 cash had been donated, online donations notwithstanding.
Mordechai Levovitz, an openly gay graduate of Yeshiva University and the Executive Director of Jewish Queer Youth (JQY), an organization that helps supports LGBTQ youth and young adults in the Orthodox community, was one of the leaders of the protest, standing at the front of the group holding an Israeli flag emblazoned with rainbow-colored stripes. “Our cause is always ‘viahavta lireiacha kamocha,’” Levovitz said, “and not letting hateful messages be unanswered. It is our duty, especially when individuals and minorities are being targeted within our community, not to be silent in the face of those messages.” When asked if, when he attended YU, he found that YU was a place where it was comfortable to be gay, Levovitz said, “It’s hard to answer these things black and white. I had a great experience, but to a certain extent it wasn’t as safe as I’d like it to be. Many of my friends who were gay had a very hard time. When I was at YU, there was a boy who killed himself who was gay. That was pretty scary.” He continued, “I also came out for the first time at YU because friends loved me and friends supported me. Even in darkness there were moments of light.”
Levovitz organized and spoke at the widely-attended panel held at YU in 2009 sponsored by the YU Tolerance Club and Wurzweiler School of Social Work which was titled “Being Gay in the Modern Orthodox world.” Moderated by Mashgiach Ruchani Rabbi Yosef Blau, the event drew an estimated 600 to 800 people and stirred up considerable controversy, with President Richard Joel and certain Roshei Yeshiva releasing statements distancing themselves from the event. Levovitz reflected on his experience organizing the panel, expressing his belief that, though a certain donor put pressure on the administration and Roshei Yeshiva to denounce the panel, “The truth is that organizing the panel was not very difficult from an upper administrative point of view. The rebbeim were not difficult, and most of them even knew about it.” However, Levovitz said, “The counseling center was difficult throughout, and I find that they still suffer from an immense lack of cultural competence when it comes to dealing with LGBT people.”
Levovitz believes that YU is improving in terms of its acceptance of LGBTQ students. “Now it’s almost ten years later, and you have multiple YU students who are out, people who are writing articles,” he said. “So yes, the negative still exists, but it’s also important to feel excited about all this positivity.” Asked how he believes the YU community can become more accepting of LGBTQ students, Levovitz said, “It’s going to be pushed by the students. I think that the administration will follow the feeling of the campus.” Levovitz believes that this counter-protest was a step in the right direction. “We completely outnumbered the protesters,” he said. “I think it was a real kiddush Hashem.”