Talk about coming full circle.
Three years after members of the Westboro Baptist Church picketed the Jewlicious festival, two granddaughters of the controversial congregation’s pastor appeared at the weekend event to give their first speech since defecting from the group, most of whose members are their relatives.
The March 8-10 visit by Megan and Grace Phelps-Roper at the annual, youth-oriented festival in Long Beach couldn’t have been more different from what happened in 2010. That’s when Megan, her mother and several other members of the church picketed the festival as one of many Westboro protests against Jewish institutions.
The most notable antic at the time was a sign, held by Megan’s sister Rebekah, that read, “Your rabbi is a whore,” directed at Rabbi Yonah Bookstein, the director of Jewlicious.
The two sisters told the story behind their decision to sever ties with their family and the Kansas-based congregation to a group of about 150 young Jewish adults on Shabbat afternoon in a grand banquet room aboard the Queen Mary cruise ship in Queensway Bay.
“I couldn’t continue living there, because I knew nothing was going to change,” said Megan, 27. But, she added quietly, “Leaving my family was so hard. We want them back.”
Her family is often in the news for picketing soldiers’ funerals (“Pray for More Dead Soldiers”), Jewish events (“God Hates Israel”), gay pride events (“USA=Fag Nation”), and numerous other gatherings related to issues that it believes are sinful.
With her younger sister Grace, 20, beside her, Megan described their internal conflict with some of the church’s teachings that culminated with their departure from their family’s Topeka home in November.
In 2009, Megan began tweeting for the church, and she targeted the top bloggers of groups that it opposes. One of those people turned out to be David Abitbol, the founder of Jewlicious.com, a Web mogul and the moderator for the Shabbat event that featured the sisters.
Just before the start of Yom Kippur in 2009, Abitbol had tweeted, “Everybody have an easy, meaningful fast.”
Megan replied, “Given that it’s Yom Kippur, shouldn’t the Jews use this opportunity to really repent?”
That began a dialogue between the two that played a part in Megan’s first major intellectual objection of Westboro — its oft-used sign, “Death Penalty for Fags.”
“The problem with that is if you kill someone when they sin, you completely cut off the opportunity to repent,” she told the Journal. “So many people would be dead — including some members of WBC.”
Grace and Megan were visibly emotional describing to the Jewlicious crowd what it was like leaving the people whom they most love.
“I had never ever, ever, ever considered leaving,” Grace said, recounting that day.
“I hadn’t either, not ever in my whole life,” Megan added.
Grace said, “We didn’t want to leave. We were trying to stay there and make it work.”
They decided — without telling their family — to avoid holding signs with which they disagreed. But in November, Megan said, they made the hardest decision.
“I lost hope in the future there — that the things that were wrong would ever be right. If I had believed that the things that were wrong would have been corrected in time or fixed, then I would’ve stayed.”
“When we first left,” Grace said quietly in an interview with the Journal, “I wanted to disappear and be no one and not have anything to do with religion or God.”
But that didn’t last for long. Abitbol, who has become close with the sisters, invited them to Jewlicious.
“I thought it would be poetic,” he said, “to have them come here, meet the people that they had upset, and see what we are really like.
“People here have literally embraced them,” he said.
Throughout Shabbat day, heretofore strangers introduced themselves to Megan and Grace, offering kindness, warmth, and hugs.
“If I was brought up in that family, would I have the strength of character and the moral fortitude to leave everything I’ve ever known?” Abitbol asked everyone.
The sisters are currently staying in Deadwood, S.D., a small town just miles from the Wyoming border. Before arriving in South Dakota, they spent time in Kansas with another “defector,” their cousin Libby, and in Brooklyn with a friend.
Grace said she is looking forward to an upcoming photography internship in Iowa, which she hopes will be a step toward becoming a war photographer. Megan, though, isn’t sure what path she wants to take.
Although they left their family and are attempting the difficult task of starting life anew, Megan and Grace said they still deeply love their parents and siblings.
“They are so kind,” Grace said. “And I want them back.”
“They are well-intentioned,” Megan said. “I think a lot of people don’t understand that they are trying to do what they believe is right, and they sincerely believe it with everything in them.”