Westboro Baptist Church protests at Northwestern's Hillel

North by Northwestern/September 8, 2010

Four members of the Westboro Baptist Church gathered on Wednesday on the corner of Foster Street and Sheridan Road for half an hour to protest Northwestern's Fiedler Hillel. This protest, brought on by the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, also included stabs at homosexuals, President Obama and Americans in general.

According to a press release faxed to Hillel from the Kansas-based church, the protest was one of five stops the group made in the area on Wednesday. Other locations included the Illinois Holocaust Museum in Skokie and the Israel Consulate in Chicago. The press release was filled with quotations from the Bible and a statement saying, "WBC is looking for the good figs among the Christ-rejecting hypocrites."

The group held several signs, with such slogans as, "Your rabbi is a whore" and "Mourn for your sins." They sang parodies of famous songs, including "Hey Jew," based off the Beatles' "Hey Jude," and a remake of "God Bless America" called "God Hates America."

WBC also protested Hillel on July 19, and Michael Simon, Hillel's new executive director, expected the two events to be almost identical. Before both protests, he sent an email to his community to discourage engaging the protesters.

"They're looking to be taunted and engaged and we don't want to give them that satisfaction," Simon said. "They picked Rosh Hashanah obviously as a symbolic date. It's part of their sick tactics."

Before Wednesday's protest, which he described as "repugnant" and "ludicrous," Simon said he did not expect many people to witness it. He was pleasantly surprised when a group of Northwestern students and Evanston residents gathered to combat the hateful protest with songs of love and signs of hope.

Ryan Odom, a student at University of Illinois at Chicago, followed the WBC protesters around all day with signs promoting tolerance and ignited a counter-protest at Hillel. He gave two extra signs to onlookers. Soon, dozens of students were singing, hugging, laughing and blocking the WBC protesters from the street.

Odom is not Jewish, but he did not see that as a factor in his counter-protest. "I wanted the people that they're targeting - in this case, Jews - and passers-by to see that there's more love in this world than there is hate," he said.

The protesters continued on, occasionally laughing at students and yelling at drivers on Sheridan Road and the crowd. One protester shouted, "take off your clown suit and put on your ‘Obey!'" to a rabbi wearing a yarmulke, but both he and the crowd ignored her.

After 25 minutes, the protest quieted down and the members of the WBC left quickly, moving on to a protest at Rosh Hashanah services at Evanston Township High School. Simon took their parting as an opportunity to address the onlookers.

"This is going to make our New Year very special," he said. "That [protest] means nothing to us, this [community] means everything."

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