Guess that religion!

It’s time to play “Guess that religion!”

For today’s entry, let’s look at this Los Angeles Times blog post about suspicious activity on an Alaska Airlines jet from Mexico City to Los Angeles:

Police and FBI agents responded Sunday to reports of three men acting suspiciously on an Alaska Airlines flight inbound to Los Angeles but determined that the trio had been praying and posed no threat. …

The men, described as Mexican nationals, were taken off the plane and interviewed and the objects were determined to be leather artifacts used for an orthodox prayer ritual, [FBI spokeswoman Laura] Eimiller said.

The story has various other paragraphs but none manage to mention what religion the men adhered to. I mean, you can sort of figure out that the “orthodox” reference is a reference to Orthodox Judaism, but these are not things that should require guesswork. In journalism, information works better than fog.

There are many other questions about this story. On my flight to Israel, I spoke with the flight attendant who noted the lack of men praying on the flight. We were flying on the Sabbath so there were no Orthodox Jews on the large flight. She told me that on a typical flight, many men will be gathered in various parts of the aircraft doing their prayers. She said it was sometimes a challenge to navigate around them.

My perspective is clearly skewed right now, as I’m in a country with a large number of Orthodox Jews. But it seems like it’s somewhat odd that the flight attendants wouldn’t recognize Orthodox Jews on a flight. It also seems odd — in light of previous similar stories — that the men wouldn’t have explained what they were doing better.

The CNN Belief Blog co-editor Eric Marrapodi did a great job of advancing the story and answering some of these questions:

Alaska Airlines has apologized for a weekend incident in which three Orthodox Jewish businessmen triggered security concerns by conducting a prayer ritual on board a flight to Los Angeles.

The men began praying out loud in Hebrew shortly after takeoff on Flight 241 from Mexico City. Flight attendants alerted the flight deck, which then called the tower and alerted law enforcement. When the plane arrived at Los Angeles International Airport, it was met by the FBI, Customs and Border Protection and airport police.

But the story goes on to explain precisely why, according to the flight attendants, the behavior seemed so suspicious: the men retrieved their teflillin (black leather straps wrapped around the arm and forehead) after attendants requested everyone stay seated with seat belts, the men disregarded repeated requests to sit down, the men prayed aloud together in an unfamiliar language, the men didn’t explain their actions very well when asked, and later two of the three men visited the lavatories together while another waited in the aisle and looked around the cabin toward the flight deck door.

The story ends with a nice, balanced discussion of mutual responsibility in situations such as this. Various Jews are quoted about how they hope airlines will become more aware of Orthodox Jewish prayer rituals but also that those engaged in such rituals will work with airline security.

The story explains the rituals and the various perspective without demonizing anyone or inflaming the issue. A nice, helpful read.


Image via Wikimedia.

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  • melxiopp

    This unspecific reference could also refer to Russian Orthodox Old Believers (Old Ritualists) who us a type of prayer-rope (rosary) called a lestovka (ladder) that is usually made of leather.

    See http://fwd4.me/xkX.

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/beliefbeat Nicole Neroulias

    I live in Seattle and often fly Alaska Airlines — flew back from Mexico on Sunday myself, coincidentally. (I also just covered this story for Religion News Service.) Now, I’m originally from NYC and I’ve covered Judaism for years, so hopefully I’ve got some credibility to counter your confusion: it’s not at all surprising that flight attendants and passengers on an Alaska Airlines flight from Mexico City to Los Angeles — especially in our current climate of high-security flying — wouldn’t recognize tefillin. Even a flight from NYC had this problem last year!

    Remember, Jews are a tiny minority outside Israel, and Jews who pray in public with tefillin are a minority within that minority (especially outside of NYC). And, given that an undisclosed bottle of baby formula at airport security is alarm-worthy these days, the sight of a passenger strapping himself with what looks like black wires and boxes, while chanting in an unidentifiable foreign language, would obviously arouse suspicion.

  • Harold

    I agree with Nicole. The CNN story does a nice job of explaining how some Orthodox Jews pray and behave, but I wouldn’t expect most people would be familiar with it. I mean, look at the experience of Sikhs and even the hysteria over the hijab.

  • Mike

    Even if the flight attendants had realized they were Orthodox Jews, the gentlemen still disregarded directions to stay seated and aroused suspicions by other odd behavior such as visiting the lavatories together. The flight attendants had every right to be concerned. I’d wager that some of the passengers were a little worried, too. The businessmen could have avoided this entire episode by clearly explaining they were Orthodox Jews engaged in their prayer ritual — and by following instructions to stay in their seats! Since I travel a lot, I have little patience with those who don’t follow the directions of crew members.

  • http://www.redletterbelievers.com David Rupert

    I do wonder about the choice to fly at “that time.”

    If the prayers were so important, shouldnt you schedule your flight to leave at a different time?

  • Larry

    As an Orthodox Jew, I can also state that there is no good reason whatsoever why the men could not say their prayers in the airport upon arrival and not on the plane. They would still have been within the required time frame (Jewish prayers have scheduled time parameters. Tefillin can’t be put on until it is fairly light outside, since Flt No 241 leaves at 6 a.m. that would mean they boarded before sunrise and could not have prayed prior to boarding.) They also could have waited at least until the seat belt sign was off. There is no excuse for their not heeding the requests of the flight crew, and there is no reason why they could not have explained what they were doing.
    Although certain prayers are ideally supposed to be recited while standing, in case of extreme inconvenience one may remain seated. If there were only three of them there is no reason why any of their prayers had to be recited out loud.
    I also wonder why in the world three of them had to go to the john at the same time.
    I do object to the term “orthodox ritual”. It is a Jewish ritual that is observed by many in the non-orthodox communities as well.

  • northcoast

    Couldn’t someone have just asked the men what they were doing? A phone call might have saved a lot of trouble.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    I guess that “personnel” would be justified in being suspicious of a “heterodox prayer ritual”?

  • Mark Jordan

    If I had been next to these people I would have complained. I am not in a church, synagogue or mosque, I’m on a plane, why should their religion be inflicted on me?

    If they needed to do a ritual, why didn’t they go to the toilet and do it instead of foisting it on other passengers?

  • http://blog.beliefnet.com/beliefbeat/2011/02/must-read-new-yorker-investigation-of-church-of-scientology.html Nicole Neroulias

    Imagine the reaction if three Muslim men tried praying on the plane! And, how it would have been covered…

  • Judy Harrow

    I can also imagine a terrorist suicide bomber rigging a bomb to look like tefillin.

  • Karen

    There would be precious little space for explosives in tefillin, Judy. You can even see the scriptures through the openings in the tiny box on the head, while everything else is a flat strap. And straps don’t look anything like wires. The three men did need to wash hands before prayers, hence the bathroom visits. But they would have saved themselves embarrassment by informing the flight attendants and waiting until the seatbelt sign was off.

  • Pamela Zohar

    You can’t pray in a toilet. And on a plane flying north, they would have preferred to stand – because one prays facing Jerusalem – to the side of the plane’s flight path. They COULD have remained seated and directed their THOUGHTS towards Jerusalem – but that’s a nicety not everybody would think about.

    I do agree that they could have explained better. Also that, given the time frame of the flight and morning prayers, they could have waited until the fasten seat belt signs were off, or maybe even have waited until they landed – but maybe not – maybe the scheduled landing was after the proper time for morning prayers (sunrise to, roughly, late mid-morning).

    I thought the story was pretty good, but I wouldn’t call it ‘orthodox ritual’ since laying tefillin is definitely not restricted to orthodox Jews.


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