Despite the persistent rain, a noisy and enthusiastic crowd of 1,000 turned out at Rutgers Hillel Oct. 28 to “drown out the hate” espoused by an extremist anti-Semitic and anti-gay group picketing nearby.
The diverse crowd, calling itself Rutgers United Against Hate, spilled out along the sidewalk on College Avenue in New Brunswick, most wearing red Rutgers apparel.
They chanted the Rutgers Fight Song, normally reserved for sporting events, and sang songs of love as four women, a man, and an 11-year-old girl from the Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas demonstrated across the street.
Although the church group left after less than 15 minutes, the rally continued for three-quarters of an hour. Led by Hillel student leader Sam Weiner of Paramus, the Rutgers demonstrators repeatedly chanted “RU United.”
“We did it,” Weiner told the cheering crowd. “We stood up against people who hate.”
The rally was the largest and most public response to the church during its planned two-day tour of New Jersey, which included stops at Jewish institutions in Hoboken, West Orange, and Bergen County.
The small, family-run church is best known for picketing military funerals and other venues while carrying signs reading “God hates fags” and “Thank God for 9-11.” More recently, they have picketed Jewish sites; at Rutgers they carried signs reading “God hates Jews” and “The Jews killed Jesus.”
Rabbi Esther Reed, Hillel associate director of Jewish campus life, said it organized the protest despite the Anti-Defamation League’s suggestions that groups avoid direct confrontation and deny the church publicity. Students were “outraged” at the thought of ignoring such blatant anti-Semitism and “would have felt betrayed by Hillel if we had done nothing,” said Reed.
Among the religious and ethnic groups voicing solidarity with Rutgers’ Jewish community were Buddhists, Jains, Hindus, Muslims, Catholics, and other Christians as well as Asians, Latinos, black, and gay-lesbian organizations and student government leaders.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Hillel executive director Andrew Getraer. “Once it appeared in the Daily Targum campus newspaper, we got this spontaneous response. Word began to spread and we got all kinds of e-mails and messages from others asking us what they could do to support us.
“We had 14,000 friends who joined our Facebook community.”
Hillel president Hilary Neher of South Orange thanked the crowd for its support, adding, “I am so proud to be part of the Rutgers Jewish community this morning.”
“We take the fact that they selected Rutgers Hillel as the only Jewish institution in Middlesex County to be targeted as recognition of the strength and importance of our Rutgers Jewish community,” she said.
With 5,000 undergraduates and 1,000 graduate students, Rutgers has the fourth-largest Jewish population of any campus in the nation.
“I came because I wanted to drown out the hate,” said Nandita Shosh, a senior from Parsippany, who is a Hindu. “I wanted to show members of the church that hate has no place at Rutgers.”
Amber Smith of Vineland said she came because “as an African-American Jew, I felt I had to protest against the Baptist church.” Westboro is unaffiliated with the mainstream Baptist movements.
Andrew Frank, executive director of United Jewish Federation of Princeton Mercer Bucks, said he came to support Hillel in delivering its message “of tolerance and understanding in the face of the vile hatred and violence of the people from this church.”
Neshama Marcus of Highland Park, a Rutgers social work student and intern for the Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County, said she was asked to attend by the federation.
“The federation is really proud to support Hillel, which is inspiring so many people in such a positive way,” she said. “It was really wonderful to see so much positive energy from students across such diverse religious and cultural lines. They shared a common vision and fought for a common cause.”
Around the corner, Canterbury House, the center for Episcopalian students, had a large sign on its front porch reading, “Love Thy Jewish Neighbor” and underneath in smaller succeeding lines, “also thy Muslim neighbor, thy Catholic neighbor, they Hindu neighbor” and continuing on with other religions.
Reed said Hillel’s annual Days Without Hate program is scheduled for Nov. 2-4. The award-winning program will bring together more than two dozen campus groups to participate in building cross-cultural bridges through community service programs, including a blood drive.