The signs the protestors held outside our synagogue on the eve of the second Pesach seder read “GOD HATES JEWS,” “JEWS KILLED JESUS (.com)” and “GOD HATES (their terrible word for homosexual people).” My entire life, I have been a member of the Adas Israel Congregation in Washington, DC and it has become a family tradition to celebrate the seder with our community members on the second night of Passover. But this year, the Westboro Baptist Church has also decided to make their presence known on this symbolic evening by attempting to sabotage our festive gathering.
That same day, the Westboro members demonstrated their vehement bigotry outside of the Supreme Court, where the justices are questioning the constitutionality of the “Defense of Marriage Act.” There they picketed with “SAME SEX MARRIAGE DOOMS OUR NATION,” “GAY RIGHTS: AIDS HELL,” and their favorite fallback “GOD HATES (again, derogatory slur for homosexuals).” They told reporters that “every leader at every level of this nation has some powerful f** influence right outside their door.” They spent the day spewing hatred and intolerance on the subject of gay marriage (also towards “BLOODY OBAMA” and “THANK GOD FOR DEAD SOLDIERS”) and then traveled all the way across town to spend the twilight hours disseminating their terrible messages outside our shul.
By this point, the Westboro Baptist Church is internationally known as a group of hate-mongers who have almost no credibility whatsoever (and yet, they did win their Supreme Court appeal over funeral protests). But, even so, it is frustrating and disheartening to be reminded that people with such prejudice, who continually go out of their way to discriminate and promote their narrow-mindedness, exist and propagate and have a voice that is seen and heard.
There is a popular joke that every Jewish holiday can be summed up in three phrases: They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat. Before the seder began, the reaction to these crusaders of hate ranged from sarcastic indifference (“People hate Jews? Quelle surprise!”) to bewilderment (“God hates Jews?”) to outrage (“I can barely stomach this gefilte fish I’m so angry!”) But once we commenced our journey into reliving the story of the Exodus, once we were provoked into insightful discussion by thoughtfully prepared questions such as “Has any bitter experience in your own life been the springboard for something sweet?” and once we began to celebrate our surviving and thriving as a religion, a culture, an ethnicity, a people, the instigators of intolerance faded from our lives. We focused on the hope that Passover inspires, the freedom that we rejoice in, and the sense of community that we cherish.
Our Rabbi, the brilliant Gil Steinlauf, did take a moment to recognize the impact and significance that the picketing represented. “Our Haggadah tells us that in every generation there are those who seek to destroy us. We have a literal reminder of that reality outside, as members of the Westboro Baptist Church seek to spew hatred upon us and our LGBT brothers and sisters. Their presence is a reminder to us all that our celebration of freedom brings with it responsibilities. Even in our day, there are those who are not free from the oppression of those who hate. Tonight is a literal reminder that our work for justice in this world is not yet done. May we draw inspiration from our story tonight in our work that lays ahead for us in liberating all the oppressed peoples of the world.”
The gay rights movement was a constant subject matter throughout our seder discussion. Freedom, equality, and struggle are all themes that are intrinsic to Passover and are dealt with and explored during the seders. And the symbolism of the maror, the bitterness, mixed with the charoset, the mortar that keeps everything together, seemed particularly pertinent given the current battle for human rights. The success of nine states (and D.C.! Can’t forget us here) legalizing same-sex marriage mixed with the DOMA requiring inter-state marriage recognition only to opposite-sex marriage is inherently bittersweet.
But the Passover holiday reminds us of many lessons. Through the darkest times comes light. Through despair comes hope. Through struggle comes triumph. Through hate comes love. And for all our LGBT brothers and sisters fighting for their right to equality in love, I eagerly await the day where we can celebrate together at your weddings and lift my glass to you to say “L’chaim.”