Local communities react to hate-filled billboards — and one response is stifled
HateCommunity responds with love and acceptance

Local communities react to hate-filled billboards — and one response is stifled

“The Jewish community in Butler is so small, and not prominent,” she said. “It amazes me, the hatred that people have.”

Cantor Michele Gray-Schaffer was heartened to see the community response to an offensive billboard in Butler owned by John Placek, a Worthington businessman.

The billboard message, which Placek has since removed, featured a swastika with the words “FBI CORRUPT & DANGEROUS THE GESTAPO.”

“From our end, there has been a lovely outpouring of support for us and we feel the love, we feel the support,” said Gray-Schaffer, the spiritual leader of Butler’s Congregation B’nai Abraham.

Placek’s billboard is only two or three miles from the synagogue. He owns additional billboards in neighboring Armstrong County that also have displayed controversial messages.

Gray-Schaffer said that when news of Placek’s Butler billboard broke, the Butler Clergy Network decided to have various Christian congregations visit B’nai Abraham on several Shabbats as a gesture of support.

“It’s a sign of solidarity,” Gray-Schaffer said.

Pastor Leigh Benish of Hill United Presbyterian Church was the first to visit B’nai Abraham a few weeks ago with a dozen of her congregants.

Benish moved to Butler from Central Texas two weeks before the massacre at the Tree of Life building. One of her first pastoral undertakings, she said, was to offer support to the Jewish community after the attack.

The pastor said that while she was aware that hate existed in Butler, she was surprised to see antisemitism manifested so openly on the billboard.

“The Jewish community in Butler is so small, and not prominent,” she said. “It amazes me, the hatred that people have.”

Placek has also targeted the LGBTQ community on his billboards. Benish said she was less surprised to see other marginalized groups targeted.

“Our mission statement says that all are welcome and that means to the refugees, and especially the LGBTQ community in town,” she said. “I’ve heard stories of what others have experienced, so to see hate emblazoned on a billboard and to see so much support behind it is not surprising.”

The Shabbat visits to B’nai Abraham continue on Friday, Feb. 17, when Pastor Joel Benson brings 40 members of Trinity Lutheran Church to the synagogue.

Even before the offensive billboards came to Butler, Gray-Schaffer worked to galvanize the community in response to a recent rise in antisemitism throughout the region. The results include a “Love Your Neighbor Gathering” taking place on Feb. 19 in downtown Butler, which includes different speakers speaking out against hate.

A short ride from Butler, the Armstrong County Democratic Committee crafted its response to Placek’s billboards, which have greeted travelers along Route 422 in Summit Township since 2019.

The ACDC rented a billboard, owned by Huntington Billboards on land leased from a third party, directly across from Placek’s messages.

The ACDC billboard read: “No Matter What you look like Who you love What your religion Where you’re from You’ve got a friend in Armstrong County.”

ACDC Chairman Chuck Pascal said in a statement that Placek’s messages gave Armstrong Country a bad name.

“We have heard from many people who have said the messages made them feel fearful and unwelcome here, just because of who they are,” Pascal said. “This has included African Americans, Hispanics, LGBTQ persons, immigrants, as well as people who are Jewish and of other non-Christian religions.”

The ACDC’s billboard with its message of inclusivity engendered positive feedback, Pascal said, at least initially. So, ACDC officials were surprised to hear otherwise from the billboard company just a few days after it was hung.

“The billboard went up Saturday the fourth,” ACDC Vice Chair Melanie Bowser said. “I believe they [Huntington Billboards] called me Monday and said the landowner had left several messages over the weekend that he [the landowner] was getting death threats, and he was worried about his life and property and that the billboard needed to come down immediately.”

Because of the alleged death threats, Huntington cited a provision in its contract that allows it to remove billboards that are “objectionable or that attracts negative publicity or controversy from the community,” according to an ACDC press release.

The Chronicle reached out to Huntington Billboards for comment. A company representative initially said he would talk to the Chronicle at a later time, but as of press time, he has not. The Chronicle is unable to confirm if Huntington instructed the ACDC to remove its billboard message and, if so, why.

Regardless of the actions taken by Huntington, Pascal said, most of Armstrong County’s residents side with the ACDC’s message of tolerance and acceptance.

“The vast majority here want Armstrong County to be a place where all people can live with safety and dignity,” he said. PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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