Students organize response to protest
Approximately 150 students gathered in the Castle Commons Sunday night to discuss a student response to the Westboro Baptist Church, which plans to protest Brandeis Hillel here on Friday, Dec. 3. According to the Westboro Baptist Church's website, the group plans to "picket the Hillel at Brandeis University to remind these Jews that they bear the curse of their forefather's [sic] murder of Christ. Further these college students of doomed america [sic] live for the devil himself, spending their energies on drunkeness [sic], lust, sloth and greed rather than serving the Lord Almighty."
Multiple student leaders, including Student Union President Daniel Acheampong '11, Senator-at-Large Aziz Sohail '13, Hillel President Andrea Wexler '11 and Hillel Campus Relations Coordinator Erica Shaps '13 were present at the planning meeting. The meeting was led primarily by Sahar Massachi '11, Queer Resource Center Coordinator Megan Straughan '11, Jason Henry Simon-Bierenbaum '11 and Morgan Gross '14.
At the meeting, students introduced themselves and discussed why they chose to come to the meeting, and then Massachi, Simon-Bierenbaum, Straughan and Gross explained plans that were the result of brainstorming from a preliminary meeting the night before between them and members of Brandeis Hillel.
Their proposed idea is for students to meet together before the church protesters arrive and, once they do, turn their backs on the protesters and partake in activities throughout the day that celebrate Brandeis' diversity, including fundraising money for Keshit-an advocacy group for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered Jews.
A Student Union Executive Board press release from yesterday supports the proposed plans that will "celebrate the values that make Brandeis great."
According to Massachi, proposed plans will come to a vote at a Nov. 30 meeting in the Castle Commons to create a finalized plan of what will happen on Dec. 3.
"We're trying something new in this in that we're being as grassroots as possible and as democratic as possible," said Massachi in an interview with the Justice. So far, the response efforts have been entirely student-driven, he explained.
In an e-mail to the Hillel listserv, Wexler stated that the day of the protests "will be a day of celebration of the values we at Brandeis cherish: inclusion, mutual respect, social justice, academic inquiry, and pursuit of knowledge. To unite our community, we are planning activities that exemplify all that Brandeis represents."
At the planning meeting, Wexler emphasized that the whole campus is invited to attend a Harry Potter-themed Hillel dinner on the night of the protests to bring the campus together.
Mark Hajjar '13 heard about the protests from a friend and began to spread the word. "They're a very hateful group, they preach a very destructive message about just about everybody on campus," he said in an interview with the Justice. "I made it my Facebook status, I talked to a lot of other people that I knew, and I e-mailed the administration about it."
According to Hajjar, the students planning response events have been in close contact with Hillel to create an appropriate response. "We have plans for this to be a very large event to bring us together as a community, but for that to work, it's really important that everyone is on the same page and everyone is willing to come together as a community," he explained.
Rabbi Elyse Winnick '86, the University's Jewish chaplain, said in an interview with the Justice that faculty will provide guidance for the students, but she was extremely impressed with their organization,
Winnick added, "They will de-emphasize the values of the Westboro Baptist Church and focus on the values of our community, which I contend are a much more sacred word of God's intent than anything we will be confronted with next week," she said.
The Brandeis Catholic Chaplain, Rev. Walter Cuenin, said in the interview with the Justice, "It's up to the students to formulate what they want to do, and [the Chaplaincy will] support them and be there." He clarified that the chaplains will support any kind of peaceful response.
Senior Vice President for Communications and External Affairs Andrew Gully explained in an interview with the Justice that the University is in communication with students about their plans for responding to the members of the Westboro Baptist Church, but no conclusive plan has been officially established as of press time.
In a campuswide e-mail yesterday, University President Jehuda Reinharz wrote that he "urge[s] all members of our community to focus on the inclusive values that Brandeis stands for rather than WBC's hateful agenda, knowing that what WBC seeks most is attention."
"We'll be getting the word out to everyone we can and turning this into a very positive thing," said Hajjar.
-Alana Abramson contributed reporting.