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Religion on the Street

Veronica Mollod, Grade 9, Staff Writer


Recently, small green copies of the new testament were being distributed outside of Lehman College. As HSAS students went in and out of campus, many began to ask themselves whether this was appropriate, or even allowed. 

While it may be surprising to some, this was completely legal. 

The copies were being distributed on the sidewalk across the street from HSAS and outside of the Lehman College gates, meaning that he was outside of school premises. Nevertheless, even if he was on-campus, unless there are specific rules made by a school prohibiting distribution of religious materials, handing out bibles is permitted. 

What is prohibited in schools is proselytizing, or attempting to convert people from one belief or religion to another. However, the handing out of bibles doesn’t qualify as this and would have been permitted. 

“I think it’s in his right to,” said 9th grader at HSAS Renee Kovelsky. She said that there’s nothing to prevent him from doing it, so there should be no fuss over it.

Attempting to convert people and pushing religion onto others bears the risk of erasure of cultures and violates people’s autonomy to choose and select their own beliefs. That being said, the simple act of handing out bibles seems fairly harmless and should be of little concern.

One HSAS student I talked to, Maeve Yukins told me that students’ annoyance with this man wasn’t as much over legality, but inconvenience: “There’s nothing stopping him from doing that, but these are teenagers who are trying to get to their classes and lunch and stuff.” Still, she did add that “it’s in his right to do so,” so nothing should be done to prevent this sort of thing from happening.

The success of handing out bibles in an effort to convert students to Christianity seems doubtful. In fact, when faced with a push towards Christianity, many HSAS students who are not Christians seemed to only take the newly available bibles as a joke.

Conversion is more likely to be successful after a time of tragedy, given the heightened religious presence that often follows these events. In the aftermath of 9/11, many evangelists, missionaries, and others flocked to Wall Street to try to spread their religion to the masses of people who worked near Ground Zero and had just witnessed a devastating attack. 

One religious group gave out around two million pamphlets, many sang religious songs, others gave out bibles. 

It is impossible to tell whether these people came as a way to take advantage of what had happened to convert people to Christianity, or due to genuine concern for the people affected by 9/11. Regardless, it is interesting to see that a tragedy so greatly intensified religious conversion activity.

In addition to the handing out of free bibles, there has been a trend of Hasidic Jewish men with palm fronds asking people whether or not they are Jewish. These men are from Chabad-Lubavitch, a Hasidic Jewish movement best known for this practice.

It began when an Orthodox Rabbi named Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known as the Rebbe, told his rabbinical students to go up to New Yorkers and ask them if they were Jewish. The question was used to try to stop Jewish New Yorkers from becoming secular and assimilating. Members of the Chabad movement would go out onto the streets in “mitzvah tanks,” vehicles driven during their outreach missions. If someone approached says they are Jewish, they are taken to the mitzvah tank. Inside, they have people do ancient Hebrew rituals. Some just do these rituals standing on the street. 

While I have not heard complaints about this practice by HSAS students, it is still worth discussing due to the similarities to the man who gave out free bibles.

One student, Rosanny Baez said, “It’s never happened to me, but I think it’s pretty valid,” when I asked her about the practice.

The perception of this practice from Jewish people varies: Some, such as some of my own family members, get annoyed by this practice, others gladly say yes and partake in  the rituals, and some will say yes while simply walking away. One HSAS student, Liv Kingsley, who is Jewish, said of the Chabad-Lubavitch men: “Oh my god I cannot stand them, I say no [when they ask if I am Jewish].”

Despite the issue some take with the practice, it is also legal, as it is done on public property (the sidewalk). 

Even in a time where religion is of declining importance to Americans, many devout New Yorkers continue to try to spread or deepen the devotion of followers of their religion. Thus, religion has maintained a strong presence on the streets of New York City, especially on Goulden Avenue!

Copy of the New Testament given to HSAS students.

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