A handful of hateful Midwesterners brought their anti-Semitic and anti-gay message to two Brownstone Brooklyn synagogues on Saturday — where they were met with anger, condemnation, and some old-fashioned chutzpah.
Though the events remained peaceful, members of the Westboro Baptist Church — a Kansas-based religious sect that regularly protests against Jews, gays, President Obama, fallen soldiers and just about everything else that Brooklynites know and love — tried as hard as they could to provoke passersby in front Congregation Beth Elohim on Eighth Avenue in Park Slope and the Kane Street Synagogue in Cobble Hill in the midst of the Jewish high holy days.
“No mercy for the merciless — and get rid of those beanies!” shouted Shirley Phelps-Roper, one of the five Christian extremists who rallied across the street from Beth Elohim.
“Stop raping the little boys and obey God!” she screamed at the crowd of more than 100 congregants, neighbors and protesters, as well as about a dozen police officers and members of the press at the corner Garfield Place.
After arriving in Brooklyn last week and protesting in front of Brooklyn Technical HS on Thursday, the group intended to rally in front of three synagogues on Saturday, but the bigots never made it to Union Temple in Prospect Heights.
Instead, the Westboro demonstrators focused their efforts on the Park Slope and Cobble Hill synagogues, where they added anti-Semitic lyrics to the Israeli national anthem and Jewish songs like “Hava Nagila” while waving signs stating “Jews stole the land,” “Israel is doomed,” “You will eat your babies,” and “Bitch burger” (which, inexplicably, depicted a fetus served on a bun).
Despite their confrontational approach, controversial signage, and cruel language, the Kansans said they weren’t hateful.
“We are not in a rage — we’re just full of zeal,” said Timothy Phelps, 44, of Topeka, whose group has made headlines for protesting the funerals of military personnel, claiming that the soldiers’ deaths were dishonorable because they fought to defend a country that allows homosexuals to openly enjoy their sexuality.
The Christian extremists told The Brooklyn Paper that they targeted these specific temples “because they are the largest Jewish organizations in the area” and that they didn’t intend to convert anyone to their cause.
“We are not here to convince anyone — we are here to warn them. That’s our duty,” said Megan Phelps-Roper, 23, from behind a police barricade.
Unsurprisingly, Park Slopers didn’t take kindly to Westboro’s message.
The scores of counter-protesters mocked the fundamentalist group with homemade signs stating “Jesus had two dads” and “God hates cotton-polyester blends.” Others exchanged insults with the religious group and chanted: “Go home.”
But the most climactic moment came when Andy Bachman, the rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim, climbed the steps in front of his synagogue and blew the shofar — a ceremonial horn used to announce major events and often tooted around the Jewish New Year.
“As a native of Wisconsin, I must say that they are giving the Midwest a bad name,” said Bachman, who later directed Brooklynites to raise their thumbs to their noses and wiggle their fingers at the protesters.
After teasing the Westboro demonstrators, Bachman commended the Park Slope community for coming together en masse against the anti-gay, anti-Semitic group.
“I hope this is only the beginning of our efforts to drive out hatred and bigotry,” he said.
About two hours after leaving Park Slope, the Westboro demonstrators staged a second protest in front of the Kane Street Synagogue in Cobble Hill, where they used many of the same signs, the same chants and the same tactics to advance their message.
“The Holocaust is going to look like a tea party when God is done with you hard-hearted Jews!” Shirley Phelps-Roper shouted in front of the temple.
She also sang a rendition of the Beatles song “Hey Jude” with the lyrics changed to “God hates Jews.”
There were fewer counter-protesters in Cobble Hill, but at times the exchanges between both sides grew more heated than they did in Park Slope.
But while some Brooklynites traded insults with the Kansans, others found the seven Westboro protesters — including two children — to be more depressing than infuriating.
“It’s just sad to see young children being indoctrinated into hatred,” said Kane Street Synagogue congregant Vicky Vossen.
Two days earlier, the Westboro church members staked out a position across the street from Brooklyn Technical HS in Fort Greene, and mostly offered an anti-gay message.
About five members of the Westboro Baptist Church, whose mission is represented clearly in its Web site address, www.godhatesfags.com, rallied for about 15 minutes outside the Fort Greene Place school, holding signs reading, “Fags are beasts” and “God is your enemy.”
But the students were ready for them, holding a far-better-attended counter-protest. There was no violence, as police kept both sides apart.
“I find it disgusting that people can come to a public school, especially one as diverse as Brooklyn Tech, and express hate,” said James, 17, who declined to give his last name.
It is unclear why the church chose Brooklyn Tech, but its Web site suggested that the school teaches that “it’s OK to be gay.”
“WBC will teach the rebels of Brooklyn what good looks like, and you had better behave,” the church said.
During the protest, students remained across the street from the protesters, some yelling, “Go home!” and holding signs and stickers promoting tolerance. Students were angry, but peaceful, about the church group’s presence.
“Hating people is not really a good thing,” said Ahmed Muhsin, 16, a junior. “[The group] is trying to get attention. It’s really stupid. I don’t know why they’re doing it.”
Not only students, but some adults were part of the counter-protest against the church group.
“We are a diverse community,” said Jennifer Marik, a Clinton Hill resident. “We welcome everyone. Their hate does not belong in my city.”
Brooklyn Tech’s principal Randy Asher couldn’t explain why the anti-gay and anti-Jewish protesters targeted his school. He surmised that Tech is one of the largest schools in the city with a diverse and multicultural student body.
“I’m disappointed that anybody would advocate hate,” he said. “My students responded accordingly with a counter-protest. They were calm and civil about it. They were angered and frustrated by the statements by the other group.” He also added, “These are some of the best students in the country so I would expect no less.”
Similarly, Bachman said he had no idea why the Baptist fringe group targeted local shuls.
“If you look at their Web site, they are equal opportunity haters,” he said. “They are living inside some kind a time warp in which they feel they have the legitimacy to speak on an ancient Biblical notion of what God wanted or, more precisely, what ancient people thought God wanted from humanity.
“They have ignored the last 3,000 years of development of human civilization — that’s what makes their message so shocking,” he added.
The Anti-Defamation League, which has been monitoring the group for several years, said that Westboro tends to protest groups that “they think support homosexuality or otherwise subvert what they believe is God’s law.”
©2009 Community News Group
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