Did Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati buckle under to a gay basher this week or take constructive action in response to his diatribe?
That was the question being asked after the institution canceled classes Tuesday afternoon at almost the same time the protester, the Rev. Fred Phelps, announced plans to picket the campus to protest the Reform movementís recognition of same-sex civil marriages.
Instead of classes, the college held a teach-in to discuss the movement’s position. But after the college closed all offices at 3 p.m. to make it possible for faculty and staff to attend the sit-in, Rev. Phelps never showed; a half-dozen counter-protestors from the community soon dispersed.
"This is not unprecedented," Rabbi David Ellenson, president of the college, said of the teach-in.
"We have had them on topics of importance in the past."
He acknowledged, however, that Rev. Phelps’ protest had triggered the teach-in.
"It was the catalyst but I do not believe it brought the school to a halt," Rabbi Ellenson said. "This was simply an opportunity to discuss the issue. I do not believe he set the [school’s] agenda."
Rabbi Kenneth Ehrlich, dean of HUC-JIR, said the teach-in (attended by about 60 faculty, students and staff) was organized at the request of students and faculty after they learned of the planned protest.
"We felt that human rights, civil rights and diversity in the community are very important," he said. "We feel that this is a good opportunity to get together and affirm the importance of human rights and civil rights in Jewish tradition."
Asked if he believed that by canceling classes, Rev. Phelps had achieved a measure of success, Rabbi Ehrlich replied: "I don’t think the reverend’s intention was to cause the HUC to delve deeper into Jewish texts or to influence our curriculum. … We are exploring Jewish tradition on specific questions and on the general question of how and why Jewish tradition champions human and civil rights in every community: and why it is an essential Jewish value."
Rev. Phelps, whose crusade against gays and lesbians has led him to picket AIDS victims’ funerals, had planned to couple his protest at the school with one across the bridge in nearby Covington, Ky., where community leaders held a hearing on a proposed human rights law.
Asked about Rev. Phelps’ protests, Rabbi Ellenson replied: "I think it is shameful that in the name of religion the humanity of any other person would be diminished in any way whatsoever."