It so happens that Hillel’s next-door neighbor on frat row is the school’s wrestling team fraternity. When approached by the Jewish students, the grapplers were more than welcome to help throttle the protesters, so to speak. They lugged out the grill, threw on some burgers and helped organize an “Acceptance BBQ” in conjunction with Hillel to drown out the Westboro demonstrators.
“The idea is to have our event overshadow theirs in every way. We want to have so many people with such a positive energy that it completely drowns out the hate and negativity going on 30 feet to the North,” wrote fraternity Vice President Marty Borowsky on the event’s Facebook page. Borowsky said the barbecue drew about 800 Penn students for free burgers, veggie burgers and hot dogs.
Borowsky said he is one of three Jewish brothers in the predominantly Christian fraternity, Alpha Tau Omega, and that he worked with his friend Greg Barber, from the predominantly Jewish Tau Epsilon Pi fraternity, to organize the event.
“We barbecue all the time and we’re right next to [Hillel] so I figured, why not?” he told The Jewish Week.
Penn’s Office of Fraternity and Sorority Affairs and the school’s Tangible Change Committee also joined forces in the battle against Westboro Baptist Church.
Westboro openly blames Jews for the death of Christ, the economic collapse and President Barack Obama’s election. Under the direction of Kansas-based Fred Phelps and family, the self-proclaimed “old school” Baptist church routinely denigrates gays, Jews, Catholics and anyone else deemed a violator of their fundamentalist ideology.
Since taking to the streets in 1991, the organization boasts 41,226 “peaceful demonstrations” against supporters of homosexuality and other behaviors deemed “sinful,” but it only began to target Jewish organizations last spring.
The group’s members have protested outside a variety of Jewish institutions in New York, including the Jewish Theological Seminary, the JCC in Manhattan, the 92nd Street Y and this newspaper. In October, they even protested outside the Kosherfest trade show in Secaucus, N.J. When Westboro protesters picketed outside Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, New York’s gay and lesbian synagogue, last June, shul members got donors to pledge money for each minute the protesters stayed, netting several thousand dollars.
At the Penn protest, the dozen or so protesters who showed up stuck mainly to 39th Street — along the perimeter of the campus rather than right at Hillel’s doorstep — and held posters that read “Mourn For Your Sins,” “Israel is Doomed” and “Obama is the Antichrist,” The Daily Pennsylvanian reported. Later that afternoon, the protesters moved to National Museum of American Jewish History, also in Philadelphia. In October, the same Westboro group showed up at Rutgers University Hillel in New Brunswick.
“There was almost a sense of gawking at them; it’s kind of like a spectacle in a certain sense,” said Jeremy Brochin, director of Penn Hillel for the past 23 years. “I was feeling a combination of anger and sadness — these people are so out of touch.”
“It’s very heartening that the community comes together and responds to it, but I don’t believe [Westboro] is a real threat,” he added.
In addition to the wrestling fraternity, Brochin said that Hillel staff and students worked with both the Lambda Alliance (an advocacy group for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered students) and the Prism interfaith group to drum up support among Penn students. While counter protesters did not engage directly with the Westboro group, they draped a banner in front of the Hillel building that read “We Celebrate Diversity” and featured the logos of various campus groups.
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“I don’t think wrestlers would normally be hanging out with the Lambda Alliance,” Borowsky said. “It brought some people together that would never normally interact with each other.”