JCHS students raise $8,000 during Westboro church protest

Students at the Jewish Community High School of the Bay in San Francisco were dismayed to hear that the Westboro Baptist Church would be demonstrating in front of their school Jan. 29.

So they turned their anger into a fundraising opportunity.

Students designed and printed posters that mimicked Westboro’s but had a positive slant.

The Westboro Baptist Church, based in Topeka, Kan., travels around the country to preach hatred of gays and lesbians, as well as groups it feels support homosexuality. The church has come under fire for its abrasive tactics, which include picketing the funerals of soldiers killed in Iraq with signs reading “Thank God for IEDs,” and has been designated as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Church members were in the Bay Area last week to picket several Jewish sites, including the Contemporary Jewish Museum and the j. office. They also showed up at Lowell High School in San Francisco, Gunn High School in Palo Alto (where they faced a counter-rally of about 150 students) and the Taube Hillel House at Stanford. (Westboro members later reported that three tires were slashed on their rental van when they were at Stanford.)

Students at JCHS spent a week collecting pledges for every minute the Westboro representatives stood outside of the school. On Jan. 29, church members demonstrated for 45 minutes.

As of Feb. 1, students had raised nearly $8,000.

The money will be sent to the American Jewish World Service Haiti Earthquake Relief Fund, a choice that earned the fundraiser the moniker “From Hate to Haiti.”

“We wanted to be proactive,” said Hannah Whitten-Vile, a JCHS senior from Oakland. “And we didn’t want the Westboro Baptist Church to come and for us to seem like we were scared of their hatred. We wanted to do something that would combat that.”

Meanwhile, students collected biblical verses that counteracted the Westboro placards of hate and judgment. They designed and printed posters that looked similar to Westboro’s signs, but instead had quotes of kindness, such as “God created diversity,” “God weeps over hatred” and “God loves justice, mercy and humility.”

Rabbi Howard Ruben, the JCHS head of school, said he was proud to see the school rally together with such a positive outcome.

“It was a moment of turning hatred and darkness into something that was filled with light and hope,” Ruben said.

As students and faculty sent e-mails to parents and synagogues, donations came in from across the Bay Area.

Lena Elkins, a senior at JCHS, said she was excited and grateful to see their efforts garner such broad communal support.

But she has one more thank you.

“We’re fully planning on sending the Westboro Baptist Church a thank-you note for all the time spent in front of our school, because we raised a lot of money,” Elkins said.

Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.