A billboard containing a charged atheist message was installed at Stewart Avenue and Thomas Street Wednesday morning, a day after a landlord refused to allow its installation atop his building in an Orthodox Jewish section of South Williamsburg. The signage, designed and paid for by a group called American Atheists, has stirred anger in the Hasidic community since it was unveiled last week.
The billboard displays the Hebrew characters signifying the holy name of God, along with the sentence “You know it’s a myth… and you have a choice” in both English and Hebrew. It also features American Atheists’ logo and website address. The signage was approved by billboard company Clear Channel and slated to be installed Tuesday atop a building at 109 South 5th Street. But landlord Kenny Stier blocked the installation Tuesday morning. As the building’s owner, Stier had the right of refusal, and American Atheists were forced to relocate the sign.
“I’m very unhappy that the Jewish billboard was turned away by a bigot,” said Silverman, who is an atheist of Jewish descent. “It’s our first direct foray into the area, and we did not expect this kind of reaction. I expected the Rabbis to complain about it, because they complain about everything we do. But I did not expect to lose the board due to bigotry.”
Stier declined to comment on the issue.
According to Silverman, the billboard’s chief aim is to promote the Reason Rally—a gathering of secularist Americans and organizations slated to take place on March 24th in Washington, D.C. He states that the billboard’s controversial placement in South Williamsburg was meant to target “closeted” atheists in the Hasidic community who, due to the Orthodox faith that pervades the neighborhood, have special difficulty expressing their beliefs and finding like-minded people.
“We’ve gotten over a dozen emails from closeted Hasidic atheists since we announced the billboard,” Silverman said. “These people feel like they’re alone. We believe that the Hasidic community is teeming with atheists who are trapped and don’t know any way out of the life that they’re in. And all we wanted to do is tell them that they’re not alone.”
“I don’t think the way one wants to reach out to a few people, is to put up a sign that antagonizes thousands of people,” said Rabbi David Niederman, Executive Director of United Jewish Organizations (UJO). “The name of God is very holy to all of us. And seeing his name being publicized and written in that manner really hurts every believing person.”
Niederman took umbrage at Silverman’s charge that atheists live silently within the Hasidic community. “That is totally, totally not the case,” Niederman said. “Look at the community, and you realize that they’re all faithful and religiously observant. We are not afraid at all that this will make any dent in our faith.”
American Atheists had installed another billboard in a Muslim community in Paterson, N.J., on Tuesday. The Paterson billboard features the same message written in English and Arabic. “”The Muslims in Paterson are taking this very well,” Silverman said. “The Jews of Brooklyn, not so much.”
The debate over the Williamsburg billboard pitted American Atheists’ right to free speech against religious sensitivity—namely, the Hasidic community’s expectation that their faith be respected within their neighborhood.
“Of course the folks who put up the billboard had the perfect right to do so,” said Assemblyman Joe Lentol. “It’s kind of unfortunate because rather than criticizing other groups and individuals for their beliefs and non-beliefs, they should be trying to build bridges. I’m sure that [American Atheists] had some sympathizers, but that’s really not the way to foster understanding between different groups.”
Regardless of the billboard’s legality, the sign’s prominent use of God’s name has fueled local anger. “It hurts, it is very painful to see HaShem’s (Ed. note: a variation of the Jewish name for God) name being desecrated in such a way,” Niederman said.
“The content of the message is conveyed in a disrespectful manner,” said Councilmember Steve Levin. “This does not appear to be a genuine attempt to engage in a dialogue, but is here merely to insult the beliefs of this community.”