Atheist Billboard Enrages Jewish Community

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Rabbi Liberow of Chabad Flatbush calls the billboard "disgusting." (Vikram Patel/The Brooklyn Ink)

 

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.

 

Jews frown on spelling out "God" (left) because it is such a holy term (Photo courtesy: American Atheists)

 

“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.”

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7 Responses to “Atheist Billboard Enrages Jewish Community”

  1. I. C. Wiener
    March 9, 2012 at 12:44 AM #

    Free Williamsburg.

  2. Simmy
    March 9, 2012 at 10:19 AM #

    “Jewish people don’t go around telling people from other religions that they’re wrong for their beliefs”
    Really? What’s the Mitzvah Tank for, if not in-your-face “Hey, your religion is wrong, come join the right one”?

    “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 of freedom,’ he said. ‘Obviously, a person would rather not have the burden of faith haunting him.’”
    Yes! That’s precisely the point of the billboards — to let those imprisoned know that they’re not alone and that they can choose to be free. Good on you, American Atheists, for opening the dialogue.

  3. Ken Stewart
    March 9, 2012 at 12:40 PM #

    I’m a Christian, but I support Jewish believers 100% in standing against this atheist beligerence. These atheists (actually they’re “anti-theists”) are haters and their campaign to flaunt their arrogance is disgusting. They are a corrosive force in society, and if left unchallenged, they will become a blanket of darkness over the land.

  4. Melissa Danielle
    March 9, 2012 at 10:32 PM #

    At least this one is more “tasteful” than the one they put up in Pennsylvania using an illustration of an enslaved African in chains.

  5. lleblanc
    March 10, 2012 at 5:16 PM #

    I was engaged with an athiest on the Huffington Post about the billboard being inappropriate. I was challanged which prompted me to compose the following reply:

    ” My post had nothing to do with me nor Christianity. My post was in defense of a Jewish sect that was descimated in concentration camps during WW 2 and who want nothing but to be left alone in their own community without having an insensitive billboard shoved in their face.
    The billboard is so uncomprehensibly insensitive. You must have known something about the history of these people. Yes, Hate Speech, whether you think what I am calling it is too extreme or not appropriate.
    These people have already had their share hate and death (holocaust) rendered to them by a well organized killing machine (the German Third Reich during the 1930’s and early 1940’s’). Have you not heard of Auschwitz ? They did not need a billboard in their community attacking the basis of their core beliefs and culture, which was almost exterminated while in the death camps. The billboard willfully inflicts pain and anguish on these people. It smirks at and mocks their unique humanity. They do not need correction for being what they are. They do not need your approval to continue to exist with the uniqueness that is theirs.”

    Sincerely Larry LeBlanc

    No reply yet to my above statement.

  6. Drew
    March 10, 2012 at 8:06 PM #

    @Ken Steward — Why are atheists a corrosive force? Many doctors, teachers, lawyers, scientists and parents do not follow a religion or believe in a God. It seems to me that it is the content of a person’s character that makes one “corrosive” or damaging to others, whether their life, property or freedoms.

    Personally, I think if religious groups were not interfering in politics and the decisions and laws that affect my life, there would be no need for such an atheist billboard. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

  7. Mitzvah Tanj
    March 11, 2012 at 12:04 PM #

    Simmy,

    Actually, Mitzvah Tanks have nothing todo with converting Non-Jews or “in-your-face “Hey, your religion is wrong, come join the right one”?”, they are intended as a means of educating assimilated Jews who are unfailiar with their background, in fact, I encourage you to approach one of our activists and ask him to convert, within 5 minutes I garuntee he will succeed in discouraging you AND probably encourage you to follow your own faith.

    I’m sorry that you find them disturbing,

    All the Best,

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