Former Westboro Baptist Church members open up at Jewlicious festival

Talk about coming full circle.

Three years after members of the Westboro Baptist Church picketed the Jewlicious festival, two granddaughters of the controversial congregation’s pastor appeared at the weekend event to give their first speech since defecting from the group, most of whose members are their relatives.

The March 8-10 visit by Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper at the annual, youth-oriented festival in Long Beach couldn’t have been more different from what happened in 2010. That’s when Megan, her mother and several other members of the church picketed the festival as one of many Westboro protests against Jewish institutions. 

The most notable antic at the time was a sign, held by Megan’s sister Rebekah, that read, “Your rabbi is a whore,” directed at Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, the director of Jewlicious.

The two sisters told the story behind their decision to sever ties with their family and the Kansas-based congregation to a group of about 150 young Jewish adults on Shabbat afternoon in a grand banquet room aboard the Queen Mary cruise ship in Queensway Bay.

“I couldn’t continue living there, because I knew nothing was going to change,” said Megan, 27. But, she added quietly, “Leaving my family was so hard. We want them back.”

Her family is often in the news for picketing soldiers’ funerals (“Pray for More Dead Soldiers”), Jewish events (“God Hates Israel”), gay pride events (“USA=Fag Nation”), and numerous other gatherings related to issues that it believes are sinful.

With her younger sister Grace, 20, beside her, Megan described their internal conflict with some of the church’s teachings that culminated with their departure from their family’s Topeka home in November.

In 2009, Megan began tweeting for the church, and she targeted the top bloggers of groups that it opposes. One of those people turned out to be David Abitbol, the founder of, a Web mogul and the moderator for the Shabbat event that featured the sisters.

Just before the start of Yom Kippur in 2009, Abitbol had tweeted, “Everybody have an easy, meaningful fast.”

Megan replied, “Given that it’s Yom Kippur, shouldn’t the Jews use this opportunity to really repent?”

That began a dialogue between the two that played a part in Megan’s first major intellectual objection of Westboro — its oft-used sign, “Death Penalty for Fags.”

“The problem with that is if you kill someone when they sin, you completely cut off the opportunity to repent,” she told the Journal. “So many people would be dead — including some members of WBC.”

Grace and Megan were visibly emotional describing to the Jewlicious crowd what it was like leaving the people whom they most love.

“I had never ever, ever, ever considered leaving,” Grace said, recounting that day.

“I hadn’t either, not ever in my whole life,” Megan added.

Grace said, “We didn’t want to leave. We were trying to stay there and make it work.”

They decided — without telling their family — to avoid holding signs with which they disagreed. But in November, Megan said, they made the hardest decision. 

“I lost hope in the future there — that the things that were wrong would ever be right. If I had believed that the things that were wrong would have been corrected in time or fixed, then I would’ve stayed.”

“When we first left,” Grace said quietly in an interview with the Journal, “I wanted to disappear and be no one and not have anything to do with religion or God.”

But that didn’t last for long. Abitbol, who has become close with the sisters, invited them to Jewlicious.

“I thought it would be poetic,” he said, “to have them come here, meet the people that they had upset, and see what we are really like.

“People here have literally embraced them,” he said.

Throughout Shabbat day, heretofore strangers introduced themselves to Megan and Grace, offering kindness, warmth, and hugs.

“If I was brought up in that family, would I have the strength of character and the moral fortitude to leave everything I’ve ever known?” Abitbol asked everyone.

The sisters are currently staying in Deadwood, S.D., a small town just miles from the Wyoming border. Before arriving in South Dakota, they spent time in Kansas with another “defector,” their cousin Libby, and in Brooklyn with a friend.

Grace said she is looking forward to an upcoming photography internship in Iowa, which she hopes will be a step toward becoming a war photographer. Megan, though, isn’t sure what path she wants to take.

Although they left their family and are attempting the difficult task of starting life anew, Megan and Grace said they still deeply love their parents and siblings.

“They are so kind,” Grace said. “And I want them back.”

“They are well-intentioned,” Megan said. “I think a lot of people don’t understand that they are trying to do what they believe is right, and they sincerely believe it with everything in them.”

Seeking a pay increase, Bet Tzedek employees picket

On June 14, employees at Bet Tzedek, a Jewish legal-service organization, demonstrated in front of the organization’s office at 145 S. Fairfax Ave., calling for higher wages. Bet Tzedek — which means “House of Justice” in Hebrew — is a nonprofit that provides free legal services to Jews and non-Jews in Los Angeles.

The Bet Tzedek employees — lawyers, legal secretaries, paralegals and clerical workers — want pay increases of approximately 2 percent, according to Marc Bender, an attorney at Bet Tzedek and president of Bet Tzedek Legal Services Union, which has 54 members. 

“We’re not asking for the moon,” Bender said. “We feel that Bet Tzedek can afford that.” The employees’ health care and pensions are also at stake, but the dispute over the wage increase has been the focus of the dispute.

As of June 15, Bet Tzedek management had agreed to an approximately 1 percent raise for its employees, Bender said.

Bet Tzedek CEO and president Sandor Samuels, who has been negotiating directly with the firm’s employees on behalf of management, would not confirm the percentages but said the employees have asked for a higher pay increase than management can afford.

“We are trying to properly balance what our employees would like with our ability to make sure that we can raise the money to operate at this point,” Samuels said.

“I’m looking forward to both sides getting back to the negotiating table so we can this thing resolved.”

As with many nonprofits, the economic downturn has affected the Bet Tzedek employees’ pay. In 2009, their wages were reduced, but in January 2011 they were reinstated to the level that they were prior to the recession.

As of last week, Bet Tzedek employees were not considering striking and expressed hope that their demands will be met.

“We’re hoping the informational picket will break the log-jam,” Bender said of the action, which drew approximately half of Bet Tzedek’s union members.

The nonmanagerial employees of Bet Tzedek have not received raises since 2008. The employees receive different pay but are subject to the same contract terms. Negotiations began six months ago, after nonmanagement employees’ contracts expired in January. Since then, the negotiations have been ongoing.

Protesters in N.Y. picket companies dealing with Iran

Protesters demonstrated outside the New York headquarters of several companies accused of conducting business with Iran.

Demonstrators from Iran 180 and United against Nuclear Iran, two groups promoting a democratic Iran, rallied June 10 in Midtown Manhattan, booing a large papier mache construction of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Eni Corp., one of the companies being picketed, sent down a spokesperson to declare the Italian energy company’s plans to officially cease doing business with Iran.

The protests followed a news conference at which Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), New York State Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and other officials awarded Iran 180 Hero Awards to Iranian activists and dissidents.

The honorees included Shabnam Assadollahi, a human rights activist who served 18 months as an Iranian political prisoner and today voices the opinions of Iranian dissidents on her radio show “Hamseda.”

The protest and conference were held on the anniversary of Ahmadinejad’s election two years ago amid widespread allegations of voter fraud and rigging.

Group to picket Israel Philharmonic performances

Women in Black will demonstrate against the appearance of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in Los Angeles Feb. 5 and 6, after the group’s demand that the performances be cancelled was rejected.

According to its web site — — the small organization plans to hold a silent vigil outside the Disney Concert Hall to protest Israel’s alleged occupation of Gaza and West Bank and human rights violations.

The group staged one protest on Jan. 14 outside Disney Hall. A photo posted on its web site showed nine women and men holding up signs proclaiming “End Israel Apartheid in Palestine” and “Boycott Israel Philharmonic.”

Initially, Women in Black sent a letter to the Israel Philharmonic last October, asking its members to publicly oppose “Israeli apartheid.”

Receiving no response, the group’s spokeswoman, Carol Smith, sent a letter to the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s president Deborah Borda and music director Esa-Pekka Salonen, demanding cancellation of the two concerts.

Borda rejected the demand, writing that “We will never support the silencing of artists from any culture as a means of political action,” the Los Angeles Times reported.

As part of its 70th anniversary celebration, the Israel Philharmonic was scheduled to perform Jan. 30 and Feb. 1 in New York’s Carnegie Hall and Feb. 4 in San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall, followed by the Los Angeles concerts.

Zubin Mehta and Lorin Maazel will alternate as conductors throughout the American tour.

The Disney Hall underground garage, with more than 2,000 parking spaces, will beclosed for the Feb. 5 and 6 concerts for security reasons, officials announced.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor