Phelps Clan Targets Brooklyn Jewish Community

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday Sep 23, 2009

Anti-gay Topeka, Kansas Westboro Baptist Church has announced a return to New York to continue picketing Jewish houses of worship.

The group has targeted two synagogues, a temple, and a high school, all located in Brooklyn, for its next "street preaching" excursion to the city.

Last month the group picketed the Jewish Community Center and several other New York locations that serve the city's Jewish population.

Though the group, led by Reverend Fred Phelps and consisting mostly of Phelps' extended family, is best known for its condemnation of gays and lesbians, Westboro has also undertaken protests targeting Jewish institutions, as well as the funerals of fallen American servicemen killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The group has also picketed in front of embassies and turned up at colleges and high schools, often in protest of productions of the play "The Laramie Project," which is based on interviews with 200 residents of Laramie, Wyoming, the town outside of which an openly gay young man, Matthew Shepard, was infamously beaten and left to die.

It was by picketing Shepard's funeral that the congregation began to attract national headlines. Since then, the group has stated that Matthew Shepard resides in Hell, and has made similar claims about Princess Diana and the late actor Heath Ledger, who portrayed a gay cowboy in the movie "Brokeback Mountain."

The Phelps congregation is expected to make its Brooklyn picketing appearances on Sept. 24 and 26, according to a Sept. 23 article in The Brooklyn Paper.

The article said that the Westboro congregation had issued an announcement that it would picket at Brooklyn Technical High School on Sept. 24.

On Sept. 26, the congregation has said, it will take its style of street preaching to two Jewish houses of worship, Congregation Beth Elohim and Union Temple.

Then, on Sept. 28, the group plan to picket three sites: Congregation Beth Elohim, Union Temple, and the Kane Street Synagogue, the article said.

The protesters typically appear for only half and hour or so. Though they carry signs offensive to many (bearing slogans such as "God Hates Fags" and "Thank God for IEDs"), they do not engage in physical violence. The group has been sued and has inspired legislation regulating protests at military funerals, but defends its actions by citing Constitutional guarantees providing freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

The Brooklyn Paper quoted from the group's Web site, where text appeared reading, "Yo what's up, God haters?"

"Why you teach 'It's OK to be gay?'" the text continued.

"WBC will be on hand to teach the rebels of Brooklyn what good looks like, and you had better behave," the Web site's text went on, advising Brooklynites to conduct themselves "properly and appropriately."

The group has seen a spectrum of conduct from the communities it has visited. Some react with pointed non-reaction, ignoring the Phelps congregation; others launch counter-protests, or even parties, as was the case at one college where the group was feted by frat boys dancing in their underwear and loudspeakers playing a greatest hits compilation of gay anthems.

At other times, the locals simply try to avoid the areas where the street preachers set up their picketing actions.

Congregation Beth Elohim' Rabbi Andy Bachman encouraged members of his synagogue to pay the Phelps crew no mind.

The article quoted Rabbi Bachman as saying, "We will essentially ignore it.

"On Saturday, we will have about 800 people observing the Shabbat in an open tolerant community. That's the best response to this bizarre and virulent hatred."

Said Rabbi Bachman of the Westboro congregation, "If you look at their Web site, they are equal opportunity haters," as avid in their condemnation of Jews as of gays.

"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," the rabbi continued.

"They have ignored the last 3,000 years of development of human civilization--that's what makes their message so shocking."

The rabbi added that a scheduled bat mitzvah will proceed as scheduled, noting that, "our eternal message as Jews is affirming life in the face of hate.

"That's been our key to survival."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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