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Talking Twitter and Tikkun Olam in Toronto: JEDx Talk with Megan Phelps Roper

Megan Phelps Roper (former member of the Westboro Baptist Church) and I spoke at JEDx in Toronto in front of a sold out audience of 1000 people on behalf of The House. You can read about my role in getting Megan out of WBC (New Yorker) and/or watch Megan’s amazing TED talk – that’ll provide you with the background necessary to understand why anyone would fly me from Israel to Toronto to talk about a conversation I had with Megan on Twitter… Now I think the JEDx people recorded the talk but it’ll be at least a couple of weeks before we can see anything. Till then, here’s the transcript of the talk we gave! We started by reading a couple of our early tweets:

[LATER]

MEGAN: “But so what?” David asked. That position is such an easy one to take. It’s easy to be cynical, to think that what we do in the day-to-day doesn’t really matter. Does it make much difference if I choose to be scornful and snide in a tweet or a Facebook post? After all, each of us is just one person. How much harm or good can we really do? It’s tempting to think this way, but a few years ago, I had an experience that made me understand just how mistaken that idea is – and just how much change can be affected by the power of one relationship.

DAVID: When Megan first contacted me I was a Web designer living in the Shuk in Jerusalem. I ran, and still run, a popular Jewish blog called Jewlicious as well as an associated Jewlicious Festival that took place annually in Long Beach, California. A few months earlier, I had been, for some odd reason, listed by the JTA, as no less than the 2nd most influential Jew on Twitter. That’s when I caught Megan’s attention.

MEGAN: At the time, I was an active member of Westboro Baptist Church, a group founded by my grandfather and consisting of about 80 people – mostly my immediate and extended family. I had been protesting gays, Jews, the military, and other Christians since I was five years old, and I brought our message to Twitter in order to reach more people — to tell them that God utterly detested the vast majority of mankind, and that the only way to escape Hell was to obey God and join our church.

DAVID: I was a bit surprised that Megan saw fit to aim her hateful rhetoric at me, and I immediately responded the way I imagined most people would. I employed sarcasm. I also implied that her Grandfather was a self-hating closet case. Megan, however, didn’t take the bait. She wanted to engage me. She wanted to undermine my Jewish values and my faith. I was down with that. 12 years of Jewish day school and a lifetime of practice were not going to go to waste. I was going to politely address her points and I was going to humanize the Jews. I was 100% confident in the righteousness of my position.

MEGAN: The strange thing is: I was 100% confident in the righteousness of my position, too. After two decades of daily protests, I was well-practiced in the art of wielding the Bible as a weapon to attack anyone who disagreed with my church’s understanding of God. Westboro members believed that we had the answers to all of life’s questions, and we were determined to make others hear. We believed it was our duty to God and our fellow man to share the truth, because it was their only hope.

DAVID: Megan and I engaged in a protracted theological debate — more than a year’s worth of conversation — 140 characters at a time. I dismissed all New Testament references because the “New Testament” is not something that Any good Jewish boy should find compelling. I questioned her “Old Testament” references because they were often distorted translations from the original Hebrew. We managed to find time to poke fun at Christian Gangsta Rap videos, learn some Hebrew, and debate the merits of ultimate frisbee.

MEGAN: As we got to know each other over the months, our discussions became less contentious. David started asking me questions about our picket signs, and I started asking him questions about Jewish theology. We met in person when I protested him at the Jewlicious Festival in Long Beach, and by the time we met up again at another protest several months later, we were exchanging gifts. He brought me Halvah from Jerusalem, and I reciprocated with some of my favorite peppermint chocolate. While I held a “God Hates Jews” sign, David showed me the kosher symbol on the packaging and explained more about kashrut.

DAVID: Not long after that exchange, Megan suddenly stopped speaking to me. I wouldn’t find out why until more than a year later, when she reached out to me to say that she and her sister Grace had left their church and their family and the only life they’d ever known — and that Megan had traced the roots of her doubts back to our 140-character conversations. I had never believed that I could actually change her mind, but I always thought it was important to challenge her ideas for the sake of anyone who might be following us and be influenced by them.

MEGAN: What David did for me — patiently and gently engaging me over the course of all those months — helped to change the course of my life forever. He could have stopped there, and I would have been grateful to him for the rest of my days — but he didn’t. Instead, he saw my sister and me adrift in the world and terrified of everyone in it, and he offered us guidance and wisdom. He invited us to the Jewlicious Festival to meet the people we had been taught to despise, and he shared with us an idea from Judaism that has shaped my path ever since.

DAVID: When Megan and Grace got to LA, I decided it would be fun to take them to the Museum of Tolerance. The afternoon began auspiciously when we walked in and the first display was, well, them! Megan squealed, “There’s Gran!” and the Museum docents appeared deeply moved when we explained what had happened. Later, in the lobby of the Museum, we discussed what their next moves should be. Megan had contemplated the prospect of just laying low for fear of further alienating their parents whom they still loved — and hiding from all the people she had spent years antagonizing. She thought it was the only option. My response to her was “No.” I then explained “There’s this concept in Judaism called Tikkun Olam – repairing the world. You and your family have added to the brokenness of the world. Now you have to fix it.”

MEGAN: The idea of tikkun olam was hopeful and liberating to me.

Hopeful, because it was in perfect contrast to Westboro’s belief that “The World is Doomed and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.”

And it was liberating precisely because — as David explained — it wasn’t optional. If repairing the world was a responsibility of every human being, then I couldn’t give in to the fear, despair, and grief I felt after losing my family. I couldn’t become jaded and say, “There’s nothing I can do. I’m only one person.”

Over the last four years, David has constantly challenged me to set aside my fears and pursue tikkun olam in every way that I can. A few months after leaving WBC, he introduced my sister and me to Mike Savatovsky — our host this fine evening — which has become another transformative friendship in my life. Mike arranged for my sister and me to spend a month immersed in Montreal’s Jewish community, volunteering at the Jewish Federation, learning Yiddish, meeting Holocaust survivors, and even living with Mike’s family. Through David, I also began working with the Anti-Defamation League on anti-bullying campaigns, and with law enforcement organizations combatting hate crimes. These groups had all been frequent targets of the church, and spending time with them helped me to lose my deeply ingrained fear of outsiders. When I remember how lost I was after leaving Westboro, I cannot imagine where I would be now without these relationships and all that I’ve learned from them.

DAVID: Judaism is kind of cool in that it combines the importance of community with the inalienable dignity and primacy of the individual. It was thanks to communal structures like family and school that I gained the knowledge to address Megan’s and the Westboro Baptist Church’s hateful ideas. It was as an individual that I took it upon myself to actually try and apply that knowledge in order to make a difference.

MEGAN: But we all exist in relation to one another. We can’t say that we are “just one person,” because our relationships are the fabric of society. We can’t say that our decisions don’t matter, because we are in constant communion with one another. How we choose to engage has the power to do great harm or great good.

DAVID: When you study the Talmud, you may notice that many Rabbis and scholars disagree with one another. Yet, throughout their discussions that span both space and time, the pursuit of knowledge and truth trumps personal animosity. Beit Shammai never called Beit Hillel a bunch of libtards. Abbaye never called Rabba a snowflake. While their disagreements will live on forever in the pages of the Talmud – the process of their discourse remains instructional And inspiring to this very day.

MEGAN: The key is: we have to remember that every interaction is an opportunity. We can thoughtlessly waste those opportunities. We can use them to alienate others, as I was raised to do. Or we can be deliberate about using them wisely, to educate and elevate and enrich one another — to repair the world — one relationship at a time.

When the video of the talk is available, we’ll put it up.

Find out more about The House here.

JEDx 2017 Speakers:
Heather Reisman – Indigo
Joseph Gitler’s Leket
Maayan Ziv – Acces Now
Justin Korda – ROI

Big thanks to Rabbi Lipner and Mike Savatovsky and all the staff at the House. Thanks also to the awesome people at the Royal Conservatory of Music as well as the staff at the Courtyard Marriott Downtown. Everyone in Toronto was really nice!

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ck

Publisher at Jewlicious
Founder of Jewlicious? Publisher? Man I hate titles. I coined the name Jewlicious and I slave over the site. I live in Jerusalem and I need to get some breakfast.
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