Flying while Jewish

The Rabbi. 1892. The

On Thursday, a flight from La Guardia was diverted after a bomb scare. One of the passengers, a Jewish teenager, was doing his morning prayers and it alarmed the flight attendant. Not because of the prayers, per se, but because of the tefillin he was using. Based on passages from Exodus and Deuteronomy, Orthodox Jews use two small square boxes with straps attached to them and place on on the head and tie the other to the arm. Inside the boxes are parchment with Scripture.

Like Cathy Grossman at USA Today, I think this is a good example of the need for religious literacy than this unfortunate incident.

I found the New York Times piece about this story fascinating. The article is incredibly sympathetic to the flight attendants and pilot who decided to ground the plane. First, the reporter contextualizes the story in favor of the flight attendant:

And in a time when in-flight thinking is colored by the brutal knowledge that passengers have hidden bombs in underwear or shoes, she told the officers in the cockpit.

It’s the reporter’s choice to frame things that way, but what’s even more interesting to me is that every single quote is also sympathetic to the flight attendant. For instance:

The boy’s grandmother, Frances Winchell, said it was just one of those things. “It’s true that we in America are very, very skittish,” she said at the airport in Louisville, where she had been waiting to meet the boy and his 13-year-old sister, who was also on Flight 3079. Mrs. Winchell said she hoped people would learn about the rituals and not be fearful.

Then we hear from the boy’s rabbi, Shmuel Greenberg of Young Israel of White Plains:

“He didn’t think of the ramifications, I guess,” Rabbi Greenberg said. “You can’t expect the whole world to know what this ritual is all about.”

The rabbi later says that congregants should not use the tefillin during flight. Even the boy was cooperative — with both the flight crew and investigating authorities.

Later we learn that the boy and his sister were handcuffed and had guns pointed at them. The grandmother dismisses it as having only been for “a short period of time.”

At this point, I’m sure that the reporter was desperately trying to get anyone who would express outrage, claiming bigotry against Jews or violation of religious freedom. They interview other observant Jews who say they’re not surprised at what happened:

“When they see a passenger strapping yourself,” said Isaac Abraham, a Satmar who lives in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and campaigned for the Democratic nomination for a City Council seat last year, “you might as well strap yourself with hand grenades. They have no idea.”

“He probably just figured, ‘I have nothing else to do on the plane, I might as well use this time to pray,’” he added. “Other people read. They watch a movie. He figured, ‘Let me grab the time.’ But the obvious reality of it is that when we see people carrying explosive material in their shoes and their pants and I am the passenger next to him and see someone strapping, I would panic too.”

Now, if there are Jews or civil libertarians who are outraged at what happened yesterday, this story did a horrible job of including that information. But if the boy’s own family, friends and rabbi are saying it’s no big deal, I tend to think the reporter was just accurately portraying the response in the community.

About one year ago today, there was the story about how eight or nine Muslims were removed from a flight after fellow passengers reported what they claimed were suspicious conversations. Turned out that they’d simply been discussing where was the safest place to sit on a plane. It was a big story and people were very upset. The FBI actually handled things well and the detained passengers were appreciative of that but the airline came in for a lot of criticism. But the media covered that story very differently. I wonder how much of that has to do with the different specifics of the case and how much of that has to do with the fact that advocacy groups got involved right away.

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  • dprosenthal

    …and you shall bind them as a sign upon thy hand and they shall be forefrontlets between thy eyes…
    Observing this ritual is quite common on planes going to and from Isreal but it is understandable that it might seem out of the ordinary to people bound for Kentucky. The young man had every right to fulfill his religious obligation at the time and in the manner proscribed. He might, however, have saved everyone a lot of trouble had he simply informed the flight attendants BEFORE he began to pray.
    By the way, how did he get this ‘suspicous’ device through security?

  • Bill

    Should it occur to a reporter to ask if anyone thought of simply asking a 13 year old boy what he was doing? Or should we just assume that diverting jets (with fighter escort) is the proper first response?

  • Peter

    I also wonder how much of the different reaction has to do with “otherness.” Orthodox Jews embrace their “otherness” and recognize they are living outside the culture. American Muslims are trying to assimilate–while remaining faithful to their otherness–and want to be seen as part of the culture.

    So Orthodox Jews expect to be seen as outside the culture and that people won’t understand what prayers may look like on a plane. In contrast, Muslims who are routinely harassed for flying while brown resent that people treat them as so bizarre just because they may dress in a faithful way while trying to assimilate.

  • Julia

    Very interesting, Peter.

    One group is rather proud of being different and doesn’t even mind being thought strange.

    The other group may also be proud of being different, but doesn’t want to be considered strange = scarey.

  • Jerry

    This story cries out for a followup on the sad state of religious education today. I’ve seen a few rare stories talking about controversies when teaching basic religious literacy comes up in school, but nothing that connects that lack of background to incidents like this.

  • Peter

    In all fairness, all the religious education in the world isn’t likely to make people familiar with the ultra-orthodox Jews who would use a tefillin to do prayers on a plane. We have people–many with a great deal of religious familiarity–who freak out at the idea that Muslim women would choose to wear a hijab. There are always going to be things that raise uncertainty or curiosity, whether it is a chastity-ring wearing Evangelicals or tefeillin using ultra-Orthodox Jews.

  • Ira Rifkin

    Not only ultra-Orthodox Jews wear tefillin during weekday morning prayers, the only time of day they are properly used. Modern (liberal) Orthodox and even growing numbers of decidedly non-Orthodox men, and now some women, also use them – although I’m guessing far less frequently during short-hop flights.

    As for inter-religious literacy, my guess is, it is – at least superficially – greater today than ever because of globalization-spawned population shifts. A hundred years ago in this nation you could go your entire life and encounter few, if any, members of other religions (as opposed to denominations) unless you lived in a major urban center or traveled widely, which was then rare.

    That’s no longer the case, and over the last 30 or so years newspapers and to a lesser degree the broadcast media tried, with varying degrees of success, to explain the implications of this huge cultural shift.

    The question is, will the level of literacy continue to improve beyond the current state of, generally speaking, minimum familiarity laced with misconceptions? The collapse of the profession formally known as religion reporting does not instill me with confidence that this will transpire.

  • Bill

    Back in 1973, there was an episode of “Gunsmoke” that dealt with the killing of a young Jewish settler by drunken cowboys. The settler was wearing tefillin for morning prayer; the cowboys, coming home from a night of drinking, made fun of him and dragged him behind a horse. The cowboys didn’t mean to kill him – although being dragged behind a horse will often have that effect. A young Richard Dreyfus played a vengeful brother, although the episode ended without vengeance.

    If you watch some old Westerns, like Gunsmoke, it is striking how prominent religious themes were. Lots of Scriptural references that were assumed to be commonly known. But the past is a different country.

  • Peterk

    sorry the two stories are at opposite ends of the spectrum. when was the last time that an orthodox Jew strapped on his tefellin and seized control of an airliner’s cockpit?

    (Jeopardy music playing)

    just as I thought not many times,and yet we get bent out of shape over an orthodox Jewish lad saying his prayers but we let a young Muslim who is on the no fly list with no luggage and a one way ticket board an airplane. something’s wrong here

    secondly how many Americans are in regular contact with Orthodox jews? I suspect not many. I didn’t encounter any Orthodox Jews until about 15 years after graduating from college. and only because there weren’t many if any orthodox living where I was. I was familiar with their practices and dress, but had never seen one in person
    then I hit the Diamond district one year in NYC Oy! Vey!

    too bad no other passengers spoke up and said “hey he’s an orthodox Jew, he’s praying no problem”

  • Will

    As I remember, the Times gave similar treatment to an incident with a family of Indian tourists being rousted and interrogated at the airport for, well, acting like tourists. Apparently this becomes “suspicious behavior” if you have dark skin and talk furrin.

  • Holly

    I would feel more comfortable if I could draw on my spiritual traditions and perform a purification of the plane before traveling, but my Native ways of burning sage and spreading the smoke around, would probably arouse suspicion. Education goes both ways, what’s commonplace behavior to me, might scare the daylights out of someone else. We should understand that travelers have reason to be cautious and are likely to react to something that’s out of the ordinary. The boy and his family are to be commended for their understanding response.

  • str


    “In all fairness, all the religious education in the world isn’t likely to make people familiar with the ultra-orthodox Jews who would use a tefillin to do prayers on a plane.”

    Well, this is not about “ultra-orthodox” Jews but simply about familiarity with Jewish rites period. And I learned about tefillin in elementary school – I thought it strange then but at least I knew about it. (But of course, in the U.S. the supposed demands of the first ammendment are so sacred that pupils must be kept from such dangerous knowledge).

    “We have people—many with a great deal of religious familiarity—who freak out at the idea that Muslim women would choose to wear a hijab.”

    But that’s a matter of opinion, choice and bigotry, not one of ignorance. Or do you think all the people involved in that incident were bigotted.

    BTW, those pointing guns. Did they do it in the air? And what were they expecting to achieve by pointing guns at a supposed suicide bomber?

  • Paul Wilkinson (Thinking Out Loud)

    The phrase, “the need for religious literacy” created an instant flashback to nearly half a century ago when we had a class in elementary school called “Religious Education.” Is that not still taught?

  • Christopher W. Chase

    Great entry, Mollie. I’m sending this permalink to my college classes to demonstrate the need for religious literacy as a constituent characteristic of public life and of mass media coverage.