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Westboro Baptist Church protests Brandeis Hillel

Published: December 3, 2010
Section: Front Page


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Friday: Members of the Westboro Baptist Church are filmed as they demonstrate at the entrance to Brandeis University.
PHOTO BY Max Shay/The Hoot

Members of the Westboro Baptist Church protested on South Street outside of Brandeis University today to “send a message to Jews that they have to obey their God and atone for their sins,” the Kansas-based church group’s leader Shirley Phelps said, while up on the Brandeis campus, students celebrated their diverse campus.

The seven Church protesters, four of who were children under the age of ten, held signs reading “Rabbis rape children,” “your Rabbi is a whore” and “America is doomed.”

People driving by in cars also heckled the protesters, with one screaming “Go back where you came from, rednecks.”

Phelps said her church decided to picket Brandeis University because “I know it has a large Jewish population, but these students are walking in darkness and maybe some among the many can still be saved if they put away their idols.”

“This nation’s destruction is imminent,” she said. “This life is going to be over in the blink of an eye and then eternity starts. So no, I’m not worried about offending anybody.”

Because the university is private property, the protesters from the Westboro Church were regulated to protesting on the sidewalk of the university. But though they were off-campus, roughly 100 Brandeis students stood on the sidelines watching the protesters and doing some heckling and holding signs of their own.

One student held an Israeli flag, while another held a sign that read “Happy Hannukah.” Brandeis junior Benjamin Gronich held a sign reading “I’m gay for the WBC. Gay as in happy … and I’m into guys.”

“I feel like my sign is tasteful, but at the same time it makes my opinions clear,” Gronich said.

Gronich said he was told to take down his sign by Celebrate Brandeis student monitors who urged him to have a united front with the celebration on main campus.

“There is a united front up by the campus center, and I understand that they think I’m giving [the Church] what they want, but I’m not holding this sign for them,” he said. “I’m holding this sign for me.”

Brandeis freshman from Kansas David Handler carried a Kansas flag with him throughout the protest to “remind people not all people from Kansas are inbred hicks.”

“We are wholesome state. These few bad apples spoiled the game,” he said.

Up on main campus, Brandeis 150 to 200 students gathered on the Great Lawn in an event called “Celebrate Brandeis” to unite and send a message to the church that “an attack on one of us is an attack on all of us,” Sahar Massachi, who helped organize the event, said.

Outgoing university President Jehuda Reinharz spoke to students saying that by being at the celebration instead of watching the protesters “we are denying them the oxygen they need—the oxygen of attention.”

“This is a day to celebrate Brandeis, to celebrate our values,” he said.

Celebrate Brandeis is a day-long event that kicked off with speeches from students and both the university’s outgoing and incoming presidents, but which continued throughout the day with face-painting, dreidel spinning and fundraising for Keshet, a Boston-based non-profit organization that helps Jewish youth who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender.

“There is great symbolism in the fact that hatred is outside of our gates, and pluralism is inside,” incoming university President Frederick Lawrence said.

At 9:30 a.m., as the Church’s protesters left to picket outside of Harvard University in Cambridge, up on main campus Brandeis students were joined in Hebrew song.

“Od yavo shalom aleinu,” they sang, or, in English, “peace will come upon us.”