Guess who’s coming to town? The Westboro Baptist Church plans to protest outside of Temple Rodef Shalom Friday night, capping off a whirlwind tour of sorts.
The group plans on April 10 to picket Howard University; the Pentagon; Virginia Theological Seminary; and, in time for Shabbat, Northern Virginia’s largest synagogue.
The Falls Church synagogue plans to ignore the protest. It will host a Shabbat service of song and prayer titled “Marching Toward Peace.”
Church officials did not respond to several requests for an interview. But the group’s website states that “WBC will picket these filthy Jews to remind them that God still hates them for killing his son, Jesus Christ. Our presence on the public sidewalk in front of this synagogue of Satan will be a testimony against every hard-hearted Jew who despised the blessings of God and did despite the Spirit of Grace.”
Specifically, the church is picketing Rodef Shalom, “this place of false worship,” because its senior rabbi, Amy Schwartzman, “is a crop-haired female.”
The Kansas-based extremist Christian group, known for rants against gays and for picketing the funerals of American soldiers, has previously held protests at Washington Hebrew Congregation and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Steve Jacober, executive director of Washington Hebrew Congregation, recalled that “maybe a handful” of protestors carried placards with hateful messages as they picketed there in 2009 and 2010. The synagogue alerted law enforcement agencies at the time, and there were no incidents at either event.
Rodef Shalom was alerted by AIPAC that Westboro church members planned to picket the Reform congregation. Synagogue officials then reached out to several Jewish organizations and law enforcement agencies to learn how best to handle the protest.
“We are not planning any counter-protest,” said Michael Shochet, senior cantor. “The recommendation by everyone is not to engage, if they show up,” which they don’t always do.
“We do respect all people’s right to free speech. We just hope it doesn’t escalate,” he said.
“They certainly have a loud bark, but they are not violent as far as we know,” Shochet said.
Synagogue President Mindy Facenda sent an email blast to congregants to alert them of the planned protest. Her email explained that while the group’s message is one of hate, its primary goal is to gain publicity. Congregants were urged to ignore the protesters.
Shochet said he intends to lead a service “of love, which is the opposite of what they are doing.”
When Shochet thinks about the people who spend their time spreading hate, it makes him mindful that “true redemption is not complete. We have a lot of work to do to make the world a better place, a more whole place,” he said, adding, “There are still many pharaohs in the world.”
If the protestors do show up at Rodef Shalom, the Fairfax County Police Department is also prepared, a department spokesperson said. The group will be allowed to demonstrate on a public sidewalk, but will not be allowed to protest on synagogue property.
Todd Stettner, president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City, knows what it’s like to be the subject of the group’s wrath. “They picketed our campus, our religious institutions.
The police here know them,” he said, adding, “They are more a nuisance than anything else.”
It’s best to ignore them, Stettner said, especially because “they make their money by suing” anyone who doesn’t allow them to legally protest. “There aren’t many of them. There are maybe a half-dozen of them. Half the time, they are not even effective,” because they show up at the wrong place or when the synagogue isn’t having services, he said.
David Friedman, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said the places the group pickets are more likely to be located where it will draw most attention. Picketing the funerals of Jack Kemp, a football star and New York congressman, and the guard who died during the 2009 shooting at the Holocaust Museum, gave it visibility more than it furthered their message, he said.
Ron Halber, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, said they are “an extreme fringe group, and they should just be avoided. You are not going to change these people. They are beyond the pale,”
Mark Potok, senior fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, called Westboro Baptist “a group of literally the most hateful anti-gay people in this country, adding, “Let me say, these are unbelievably vile people.”
They were once led by a man named Fred Phelps, who renounced the group’s ideology of hate before his death last March. However, some of his children and grandchildren continue to spread that message, Potok said.
Many of Phelps’ relatives are lawyers. “They’ve won an enormous series of lawsuits having to do with free speech,” Potok said.
“In the last two, two-and-a-half years or so, they’ve gone absolutely full anti-Semitic. They sound like Nazis when they talk about Jews,” Potok said. “My guess is that they decided that many Jews didn’t hate gay people enough for them. That seems to have been the genesis. That seems to be at the bottom of everything they do.”
Members aren’t at all shy about proclaiming their views. On Westboro’s website, www.GodHatesFags.com, visitors can find a news release concerning the planned protest at Rodef Shalom, along with directions that “WBC picketers present themselves in respectful proximity, with ‘Jews Killed Jesus,’ ‘God Hates Jews’ and ‘Israel is Doomed’ signs!” The message is capped off with large, bold type, proclaiming: “SOME JEWS WILL REPENT!”
Political Reporter Dmitriy Shapiro contributed to this report.