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JCC talks tolerance as a church preaches hate
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JCC talks tolerance as a church preaches hate

Tiny protest greeted by peaceful dialogue; RU Hillel plans rally

Five members of the Westboro Baptist Church picket across the street from the Leon & Toby Cooperman JCC, Ross Family Campus, in West Orange, on Oct. 27.
Five members of the Westboro Baptist Church picket across the street from the Leon & Toby Cooperman JCC, Ross Family Campus, in West Orange, on Oct. 27.

It was hateful on one side of the street, haimishe on the other, as six members of the Westboro Baptist Church picketed the Cooperman JCC in West Orange Oct. 27.

While church members held aloft multicolored signs with messages reading “The Jews Killed Jesus,” “God Hates Jews,” and “Israel Is Doomed,” more than 100 people gathered on the JCC’s second floor for a civil, interfaith “dialogue” against bigotry.

The large turnout and peaceful response to the demonstrators from the Kansas-based church — which planned similar protests at other Jewish institutions in New Jersey — heartened organizers.

“It is indeed good to see the kind of support that came out on an ad hoc basis,” Etzion Neuer, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey region, told the JCC audience.

“Turning their backs on them is not ideal,” he said of the demonstrators. “We are not ignoring them. We recognize their presence and we all collectively are very disturbed to know there are people like this. Our response is to denounce it.”

Charles Ortman, pastor at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation at Montclair, added an interfaith note to the gathering inside the JCC.

“The hate being exhibited outside needs to be shared with love on the inside,” said Ortman. “I am here today because I have to be. There is hate out there and it needs to be responded to with love. I feel very sorry that the people gathered outside find such little value in their lives that they need to try to injure other people. It is a total corruption of any Christian tenet. They are worshiping evil by doing what they are doing.”

The JCC was one of the first stops on a NJ swing by the tiny but media-savvy church, best known for picketing the funerals of gay men and women, fallen soldiers, and others they think have run afoul of their virulently anti-gay and, more recently, anti-Semitic agenda.

Jewish institutions were on high alert, urging followers to deny the church the kind of confrontations they seek. In the days before the protest at the JCC, Alan Feldman, the JCC’s chief executive officer, resisted suggestions that the JCC stage a counter-demonstration, and instead invited the community to the “dialogue.”

It took place minutes before the demonstrators — five women and one man — arrived in the rain across the street from the JCC at about 1:30 p.m., a half-hour later than they had originally planned.

Once the “dialogue” ended, its audience members watched the demonstration from windows inside the JCC, while two local police officers, two newspaper reporters, and a few quiet observers stood by peacefully near the picket line.

There were no confrontations and no television cameras present during the 30-minute protest.

Church spokesperson Shirley Phelps-Roper explained the theology of hate preached by her father, church founder Fred Phelps. The church is not affiliated with mainstream Baptist denominations.

“I don’t have a problem with Jews,” said Phelps-Roper. “I don’t hate Jews. God hates Jews because they murdered his son.”

“I’ll tell you why we turned our attention to our Jewish brethren six or seven months ago,” she continued. “Because we are in the last hours of the last days of all. When you have the beast anti-Christ Obama in the most powerful office in the world, you are looking at a short timeline. It is going to be when Obama brings the nations to march upon Jerusalem and the prophets say, ‘That city will be rifled and the women taken.’”

Across the street, Rhonda Lillianthal, JCC MetroWest’s director of Jewish education, held aloft a bound edition of the Torah.

“Every single human being on Earth has the spark of God, the essence of God,” she told the people gathered at the JCC. “Every single one of us is created in the image of God — everyone here and those people out there. Some people misuse and distort this Torah, but this is the light.”

In addition to Ortman, Neuer, and Lillianthal, speakers at the informal JCC gathering included Feldman and Barbara Heisler Williams of Maplewood, director of an interfaith organization called Integral Inc.

All said they were pleased at the solidarity being expressed in opposition to the demonstrators from Kansas.

The picketers scheduled later stops at United Synagogue of Hoboken, the KosherFest exhibition at the Meadowlands, and Rutgers Hillel in New Brunswick on Oct. 28, after NJJN went to press.

Hillel planned to respond with a rally called Rutgers United Against Hate. As of the evening of Oct. 26, more than 2,600 people were planning to attend, said Rabbi Esther Reed, associate director of Jewish campus life at Rutgers Hillel.

Reed said Hillel organized the rally in response to students who were “outraged” at the thought of ignoring the anti-Semitic protestors.

“They would have felt betrayed by Hillel if we had done nothing,” said Reed.

The scheduled speakers were representatives of a broad of coalition of religious, cultural, and ethnic groups on campus.

Debra Rubin contributed to this article.

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