Upset resident forms group to protest the protesters Worship Without Harassment has 260 supporters
Every Saturday morning for more than three years, members of Jewish Witnesses for Peace and Friends have stood on the sidewalk in front of Beth Israel Congregation on Washtenaw Avenue in Ann Arbor holding signs protesting Israeli policies toward the Palestinians.
From day one, that's upset Ann Arbor resident Larry Crockett.
"But I thought over time it would stop,'' said Crockett, a member of Unitarian Universalist in Ann Arbor. "It baffles my mind that it's still going on in Ann Arbor.''
That's why Crockett and six others have formed a group to protest the protesters. Worship Without Harassment now has about 260 supporters, including ministers, priests and rabbis who express solidarity with Beth Israel.
The group agrees there are appropriate times and places for political protest but says a synagogue at the start of a Saturday service isn't one of them, Crockett said.
Worship Without Harassment asks supporters to consider sending a letter of support to Beth Israel; lighting a candle during a worship service while expressing support of Beth Israel Congregation; giving a sermon or writing a congregational letter about the situation; and signing on at worshipwithoutharassment.org.
Marian Krzyzowski of Ann Arbor was a University of Michigan student and frequent protester back in the 1960s, but he calls the weekly vigils "outrageous.'' Krzyzozwski, a Catholic, said people go to religious services to find peace and try to deal with important issues in their lives.
"To have people out there with signs saying things about you that have no connection to what you're doing and who you are is so out of place to me,'' he said. "To target a Jewish synagogue doesn't make sense to me. And to stay there year after year and harass people as they go to worship. ...''
Henry Herskovitz, the Ann Arbor resident who began the vigils, insists members of his group would have been arrested by now if they harassed anyone.
"Harassment is against the law, and we are the most scrutinized peace group there ever was,'' he said, noting the police presence during the vigils.
No protesters have been arrested, but an elderly Ohio man who was entering the synagogue was arrested last September on an assault charge after he pushed at a video camera being used by a member of Jewish Witnesses for Peace and Friends to videotape the congregants. Charges were later dropped.
About a dozen people join the Saturday vigils from 9:30 a.m. to 10:45 a.m. Some of their signs read: "Stop US Aid to Israel'' "Israel Commits Atrocities'' and "Israel Lobby Inside.''
Ann Arbor resident Laurel Federbush, who has participated in the vigils most Saturdays since the start, insists the synagogue is the appropriate venue because it promotes a nationalist political agenda.
"We'd like the synagogue to dissociate from Israel,'' said Federbush, who is Jewish.
Rabbi Robert Dobrusin of Beth Israel Congregation said people remain very upset about the vigils but continue to attend Sabbath morning services in large numbers.
The 60-year-old Herskovitz, who calls himself a once-a-year, cultural/religious Jew, said his position has cost him his relationship with many Jewish friends and relatives. And, he said, he's tired of spending part of every Saturday at the vigils.
Herskovitz said it was the Jewish community's refusal to talk with him about the "Israeli atrocities'' he saw firsthand on a trip to the Middle East that led to the vigils in the first place. He said the vigils would stop if Beth Israel's Board of Directors publicly supported three things: Equality of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel within Israel; the implementation of the rights of Palestinian refugees to return to their properties in Israel and Palestinian territories; and the end of Israeli occupation and colonization of all lands seized by Israel in 1967.
Dobrusin said the long-standing position of the congregation has been publicly stated in detail many times - it supports a peaceful resolution to the Israel-Palestinian crisis and recognizes the importance of respectful dialogue on the issue.
"Our congregation will not respond to lists of demands from anyone, especially from those who have conducted a disrespectful, intrusive action for three and a half years,'' he said.
There has been some public opposition to the vigils.
In 2004, the Ann Arbor City Council voted unanimously to condemn political protests outside houses of worship.
In 2005, Ken Phifer, a retired Unitarian Universalist minister, helped get 33 other members of the Ann Arbor clergy to sign a statement that appeared in The News condemning the vigils.
Phifer said the vigils are immoral and disrespect the right to practice one's religion in peace. He said they are also impractical because they've only served to make people angry, while pushing discussions about the issue to a back burner.
Jo Mathis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 734-994-6849.