Godsmacked! Atheist billboard blocked in Hasidic Williamsburg

Godsmacked! Atheist billboard blocked in Hasidic Williamsburg
Community Newspaper Group / Aaron Short

This time atheists found themselves answering to a higher power — a picky landlord.

A Southside loft owner refused to allow a billboard questioning Judaism to be installed atop his S. Fifth Street building on Tuesday amid outrage in Williamsburg’s Hasidic community.

National atheist leaders tried to take out a month-long ad adjacent to Williamsburg’s Orthodox Jewish stronghold with text in English and Hebrew reading: “You know it’s a myth … and you have a choice.”

But at the last minute, landlord Kenny Stier refused to allow workers from the advertising company Clear Channel into his building, according to American Atheists president David Silverman.

Silverman claims powerful neighborhood rabbis convinced Stier to block the non-believing billboard and called the religious leaders and the landlord “anti-atheist bigots.”

“The Jews have stopped the billboard,” said Silverman. “It’s really ugly bigotry. As a former Jew, it’s repugnant to see Jews act like this.”

Several Hasidic leaders said they had nothing to do with the landlord’s decision to block the billboard, and Stier declined to comment.

“I don’t want to get involved in this,” he said.

When it comes to riling up a religious community in most offensive way possible, an atheist billboard in Hasidic Williamsburg is a match made in heaven.

American Atheists announced its plans to install the sign, which would have faced drivers and pedestrians crossing westbound on the Williamsburg Bridge, on Friday.

The plan immediately outraged Williamsburg’s Jewish like Rabbi David Niederman, who called the sign “inappropriate” and the atheists a “group of crazies.”

“They lost their purpose in life,” said Niederman, who heads the Jewish social services group United Jewish Organizations. “They’re not even going to make a dent. It’s a disgrace. The name of god is very holy to us and to the whole world.”

Silverman says he wanted to advertise in the Hasidic community because it is “teeming with atheists,” and claimed its residents often email his group in order to find a way out. He hoped the billboard would inspire some of them to attend an atheist rally in Washington DC on March 24.

“There are a number of [Hasidic Jews] saying they are stuck in their lives and it’s very surprising,” said Silverman. “They can’t leave. They don’t the requisite job skills or an education. So we want them to come to the rally, have a little fun and go home and make decisions with their lives.”

The snubbed sign — which would replace an advertisement for Long Island University — was anything but fun, according to neighborhood politicians.

Councilman Steve Levin (D–Williamsburg) said the billboard showed a “severe lack of sensitivity” at a time when Brooklyn should be striving to have open conversations about religion.

“Even if we were to ignore the antagonistic placement of this billboard near the Williamsburg Bridge, the content of the message is conveyed in a disrespectful manner,” said 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.”

A Clear Channel spokesman said that the company has found another billboard space elsewhere to accommodate the atheists, but did not say where.

This isn’t the first time that Hasidic groups have protested a controversial billboard in Williamsburg — nor is it the first time that atheists have sparked outrage among religious Brooklynites.

Satmar leaders slammed an advertisement for a “90210” remake that featured swimsuit-clad actors near the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in 2008. The ad was soon taken down.

And last year, Manhattan atheists threatened to sue the city for installing a street sign that renamed a portion of Richards Street, “Seven in Heaven Way,” for seven firefighters who died in 9-11.

Reach reporter Aaron Short at [email protected] or by calling (718) 260-2547.