No one was surprised it happened, everybody remained calm and polite — including, apparently, the two teenagers when they were briefly handcuffed — all aboard were safe. Still it’s a little sad when a young airline passenger in prayer sets off alarm bells in our spacious American skies.
The 17-year-old observant Jewish passenger, seated next to his younger sister, was strapping a tefillin onto his wrist and his head, figuring to take advantage of the quiet time for ritual prayer. It was a small plane outbound from La Guardia Airport and about 25 minutes into a flight to Kentucky. The flight attendant on US Airways Express Flight 3079 last Thursday thought the tefillin looked ominously like wires or cables.
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. The pilot decided to divert the Kentucky-bound plane to Philadelphia. In less than 30 minutes it was on the ground, police officers were swarming through the passenger cabin, and the Transportation Security Administration was using terms like “disruptive passenger” and “suspicious passenger” to describe the boy. An hour or so after that, Lt. Frank Vanore, a spokesman for the Philadelphia police, had another explanation.
“It was unfamiliarity that caused this,” he said.
He said the flight crew had never seen tefillin, small leather boxes attached to leather straps that observant Jews wear during morning prayers. The flight crew “didn’t understand what it was,” he said, and the pilot “erred on the side of caution and decided to radio that in and to divert the flight.”
We can’t all recognize a tefillin, or appreciate head scarves, or somehow get comfortable with the accoutrements of unfamiliar religions. But this incident suggests we might need to try harder.
The young man and his sister, whose names were not released, are from White Plains, the authorities said. Rabbi Shmuel Greenberg of Young Israel of White Plains said that they were members of his congregation and that the young man was “a good boy, bright, intelligent, as docile as you can imagine.” Some observant Jews said they were not surprised that the ritual had attracted attention — or that people on the plane would have been unfamiliar with it. “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.’ 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.”
And most of the rest of us would say the same. Maybe most of the rest of us, though, could take some time to check out interfaith groups such the International Association for Religious Freedom or United Religions Initiative, or local organizations such as the San Francisco Interfaith Council (local interfaith groups exist throughout the country), which offer a chance to learn about other faiths and get to know the mostly peace-loving people who follow other traditions. In all probability, there will be times ahead when some badly-misled person will shout “Allahu Akbar” before blowing himself or herself to smithereens, or some deranged person will commit violence (witness the killer of abortion Dr. George Tiller claiming his religious convictions justified the act) in the name of some abused diety. But a little interfaith understanding could go a long way in today’s super-suspicious world.
Rabbi Greenberg, the boy’s rabbi, had some advice for future flights.
“I would suggest, pray on the plane and put the tefillin on later on,” he said.