Roughly an hour after leaving the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center, the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) demonstrators loaded into a white cargo van and headed toward the Fiedler Hillel at Northwestern University on Wednesday evening.
Their traveling protest -- considered offensive at the start of Rosh Hashana observances -- was greeted at the new location, 629 Foster St., by more than 50 spectators. The church demonstrators stood near Sheridan Road and Foster Street and sung songs ranging from "Amazing Grace" to Jewish hymns to even a Lady Gaga tune – all with rewritten anti-Semitic verses.
"It's a bit absurd," said Joshua Shadlen, a graduate student at Northwestern University.
"I think they're pretty funny with what they're doing," said Shadlen, who heard about the group's plans and thought it was offensive. "It's interesting that they know all these pop songs too. I don't know where they're learning them -- people that are very religious usually try to shy away from them."
WBC members, known for demonstrating at military funerals and burning American flags, made their rounds in Skokie and Evanston. Early in the day, they were in downtown Chicago picketing near the Israeli Consulate.
When asked to convey the church's message in one sentence, member Megan Phelps-Roper said, "Obey God or Destruction." The group preaches zero tolerance for those who disagree with its fundamentalist doctrine.
Dressed in tank tops, shorts and rainbow flags tied to their legs, each WBC member held four signs with messages such as "God is Your Enemy" and "Some Jews Will Repent."
The picketers waved their signs toward the road and passing drivers responded with raised middle fingers, honks and profanities.
Michael Simon, executive director of Fiedler Hillel, said the church's decision to demonstrate against the Jewish community at the start of Rosh Hashana was distasteful.
"It's painful that they're doing this on Rosh Hashana," Simon said. "Our take is that we don't want to engage them in any way."
Jessica Watters stood near Skokie's Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center when she encountered four WBC protesters.
Watters, a Jewish Skokie resident, said she was prepared for the group's "hateful message." She said she came to promote love and peace, but was soon overwhelmed.
"It definitely changed the tone of my new year and it just reminds me how much hate there is out there," Watters said.
Yet it wasn't long before Watters broke down and started crying. As she walked away with her young child in a stroller, WBC member Shirley Phelps-Roper emerged with a smile.
"I told her what she needs to teach her child," Shirley Phelps-Roper said. "That she needs to obey God."
But Watters said the protesters were not going to stop her from having a sweet new year. Instead, they helped her come up with a resolution for the Jewish holiday, she added.
"Maybe just spread more peace and be more positive," Watters said.
The Westboro Baptist Church, based in Topeka, KS, comprises 11 family members, many of whom are lawyers, and was founded by Fred Phelps in 1955. The group spends more than $250,000 a year traveling across the country to promote its message, according to Megan Phelps-Roper.
To check out our set of photos of the WBC, click here.