Sharing love, lessons in the face of hate rally
Nine members of the Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, which is known for hate speech directed at Jews and the LGBT community, staged a 30-minute demonstration early on the morning of Feb. 27 outside Shalhevet High School, a Modern Orthodox high school in the Miracle Mile neighborhood.
The protesters had flown to Los Angeles to hold a protest outside the Academy Awards ceremony Feb. 26 in Hollywood. They also demonstrated outside the Islamic Center in Hawthorne over the weekend.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks domestic hate groups, calls Westboro Baptist Church “arguably the most obnoxious and rabid hate group in America.” According to the church’s website, it has held more than 59,000 demonstrations in 994 cities.
In an email to the school community several days ahead of the demonstration, Rabbi Ari Segal, Shalhevet’s Head of School, said classes would start at 9:30 a.m., about two hours after the demonstrators were scheduled to be dispersed. He also said extra Shalhevet security, as well as Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) officers, would be on hand and urged against any counterprotest, on advice from school security officials.
“This group is looking to incite a response. I strongly urge our entire community to not give them the satisfaction of an argument or a response,” he wrote.
The protestors — teens to middle-aged adults — gathered on a busy section of Fairfax Avenue directly across the street from Shalhevet’s gated parking lot entrance. With LAPD officers and Shalhevet’s armed security guards on alert, protestors played music on a stereo, sang along and held up signs, including those that said “Tranny Sin Dooms Nations” and “144K Jews Will Repent,” a reference to scripture, the protestors claimed. The group believes Jews to be ardent supporters of homosexuality and the murderers of Jesus.
Timothy Phelps, 53, the son of Westboro’s founder, Fred Phelps, was among the protestors, but he did not offer much of a reason for choosing Shalhevet over other Los Angeles Jewish schools. He cited its location near a busy intersection, saying the group would get to other Los Angeles Jewish schools, such as YULA, in due time. He went on to refer to Judaism as a “dead religion” and talked about how sin in various forms is synonymous with Judaism.
“Idolatry, adultery, sodomy, fornication, pride, all of those … it’s rampant in the Israeli culture, in the Jewish culture,” he said.
With some in the Shalhevet community calling for a counterprotest off-site, Principal Noam Weissman favored the idea of a special learning program as a response to “virulent anti-Semitism.”
“We didn’t want to give them the attention they were seeking,” Weissman said. “We thought: Why not respond from a Jewish perspective and use this hatred as a springboard to be more proud of our Judaism?”
Segal found a willing partner in Beth Jacob Congregation, an Orthodox synagogue in Beverly Hills, which offered use of its facility. Heads of three area Jewish high schools — de Toledo High School, YULA Girls High School and Milken Community Schools — expressed an interest in having their students participate in whatever Shalhevet planned. Approximately 60 students from the three schools joined nearly 240 Shalhevet students and some parents who gathered at Beth Jacob at 8 a.m. for a tefilah service and Torah learning centered around Purim.
“This brought out the best in so many people,” Segal said. “Whatever Westboro was hoping to do, they accomplished the exact opposite.”
Weissman added: “They preached hatred and we celebrated love, friendship and peace in a most incredible way.”
After the program, Shalhevet students walked the 40-minute route back to campus in what Segal and Weissman called “the peace and love march.”
Segal said the rest of the day went smoothly, though he called the day as a whole “one of the craziest” during his time there.
In response to the protest, IKAR, a Jewish community that holds prayer services inside Shalhevet’s gymnasium, sent an email to its community, urging donations to the Trevor Project, an organization that provides life-saving support for transgender youth and adults. IKAR also collected donations from its members for a separate fund that was used to purchase sweets that were delivered Monday afternoon to Shalhevet students.
Segal said he was touched by the support from colleagues and the students at other schools. However, he added that he hopes moving forward, Jewish schools can look to come together in a proactive way, rather than just in reaction to troubling circumstances.
“I spoke with the leaders of the other schools and we all agreed that it shouldn’t just be something negative that brings us together,” Segal said. “The schools coming together to do good things together shouldn’t just be a reaction to people coming to tear us down. It should also happen to celebrate something positive.”
Staff writer Eitan Arom contributed to this report.