On the evening of March 7, the Jewish community in Brooklyn celebrated the start of Purim, a holiday commemorating the salvation of the Jews from destruction at the hands of a Persian ruler named Haman. But Wednesday night ushered in a bit of unwelcomed text as well: a large billboard along the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway that reads, in both English and Hebrew, “You know it’s a myth, and you have a choice.”
The provocative advertisement was put up by American Atheists, a Cranford, N.J.-based organization of non-believers that says it wants to target closeted atheists in what they call “insular communities.” The group has also put up an identical billboard in Paterson, N.J. – with Arabic replacing the Hebrew script – hoping to target potential atheists in the sizable Muslim population there.
Blair Scott, the group’s director of communications, said its goal is not to mock people for their beliefs, but to reach out to those in the Jewish community who fear they’ll be ostracized if they came out as atheists.
“If you don’t know it’s a myth, then you’re not the target audience,” Scott said.
The Hebrew billboard was originally slated to go up Monday on South Fifth Street in Brooklyn, next to the Williamsburg Bridge, but Scott claims the owner of the building, Kenneth Stier, was pressured by leaders in the Hasidic community to not go through with it. When contacted by phone, Stier insisted that he wasn’t pressured by religious leaders, but then declined to comment on any further questions.
Many Hasidic Jews find the billboard offensive, like Rabbi Zalman Liberow from Chabad Lubavitch, a Hasidic movement, in Flatbush.
“This is really disgusting,” he said, sitting in a large van called the Mitzvah Tank on 14th Street and Kings Highway in Brooklyn, which serves as a sort of mobile synagogue. “I can understand why Christians or other religions would want to convert people,” he added, “but why would an atheist want to make other people atheist?”
Jews traditionally frown upon spelling out “God” because it is considered so holy. And while Scott said the decision to write it in Hebrew on the billboard was not intentional, he has no reservations about American Atheists’ decision.
“We’re not privy to their rules,” Scott said. “We don’t have to follow their dogma.”
This is not American Atheists’ first provocative campaign. The group drew sharp criticism from Christians in late November 2010, when it posted a billboard depicting a Nativity scene that read, “You know it’s a myth. This season, celebrate reason.”
Moishe Friedman, a Williamsburg resident who thinks the billboards are a ploy to drive traffic to the atheists’ website, said that Jewish people don’t go around telling people from other religions that they’re wrong for their beliefs – and neither should a group like American Atheists.
“I think non-Jewish people will build up a bad perception of the Jewish community and Jewish people in general,” he said. “Keep it to yourself.”
The billboard now sits on Meeker Avenue, above the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, a little more than a mile-and-a-half north of the original Williamsburg location. Scott said the billboard company, Clear Channel Outdoor, was extremely apologetic, and has given the atheists five free days of advertising in its current location.
He said both billboards together cost around $15,000, which came from the group’s billboard fund, which is made up of individual donations and donations made directly to the billboard fund.
The advertisements come just a few weeks before the Reason Rally, a gathering of atheists, agnostics and other “free thinkers” schedule to take place on March 24 at the National Mall in D.C.
Rabbi Liberow believes campaigns like American Atheists’ are particularly dangerous for vulnerable youth whose faith may be wavering.
“It could give an extra push for people who are looking for freedom,” he said. “Obviously, a person would rather not have the burden of faith haunting him.”