Jewish Teenager’s Prayer Diverts a Plane

From The Philadelphia Jewish Voice
From The Philadelphia Jewish Voice

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.

Jewish Teenager’s Tefillin Diverts a US Airways Flight –


  1. I would also like to add that when the author calls out comments that are as hate filled as Savio’s against people like me, then no wonder we are having problems today.

  2. And both points of view, unfortunately popular, get the press. Which is why I keep mounting this soapbox that says, Please just back off, folks, and try to get to know each other so we can — dare we consider? — peacefully coexist.

    1. Forgive my snarkiness–I see we agree. Yes, those two extremes dictate the dialogue. I wish I knew why.

      We need to find our way to treating religion as a cultural detail to be studied, just like any other cultural detail. And to heck with the complaints of the one-true-God crowd or those who want to suppress any mention of religion. As author Bruce Bawer (“Stealing Jesus”) points out, religion is a major part of our cultural history in the U.S., and knowing little about religion in all of its variety (guilty as charged) literally makes us less knowledgeable citizens. When any aspect of our cultural history becomes too controversial to be constructively discussed, no one is better off for it.

      Religion’s vulnerability to politicization has much to do with too many of us knowing too little about its history. (Again, guilty as charged.)

  3. You know, Savio, I wish there WERE a way to bring some sort of Comparative Religions course into schools, since it’s religions (plus turf) that tend to start wars and thus obliterate us all. Not sure how it could ever be done. We’ve come a long way since my 2nd grade best friend, a Catholic, had to wait in the hall during Religious Education (class taught by creepy lady friend of my mother.) I surely don’t want to return to those days, but some avenue towards mutual understanding and respect does urgently need to be opened.

    1. Well, yes, sure. As a Christian, I’m just aching to go out and start a war. It’s what my “Gawd” tells me to do.

      As always, I can’t decide which is worse–the lefty notion that religion is the cause of all evil or the conservative cliche that God picked America to lead the world. Both points of view consist of a single, simple (and false) assertion around which all data and debate are supposed to circle.

  4. Religion bad. No should educate about. Evil.

    World better without.

    Oops–sorry. Fell into neo-atheist mode, there. I don’t know how that happened. Apologies.

    Great piece. Education would help, but no one can so much as suggest that we teach kids ABOUT religion without the anti-faithers going ballistic.

    1. I am an athiest but I certainly don’t think that anyone should think twice about praying anytime and anywhere they want. I find it unfortunate that athiesm was brought into this, when in fact it was religious fundamentalism that made 19 people board planes to later use them as weapons. Fundamentalist Christians have historically been the aggressors against Muslims as well, going back to the Crusades.

      Why bring athiesm into this? I think the more we learn about religion the better.

  5. Or maybe the Rabbi should suggest that if you absolutely must pray on the plane, do it in a private manner?

    It was inevitable that something like this would happen.

    However, it’s not the rest of the country’s responsibility to learn every ritual that accompanies prayer for differing faiths.

    1. Actually, I think that’s what the rabbi was saying. And I’m not suggesting that it’s our responsibility to learn other rituals and practices, but I AM suggesting that the better we know and understand each other the better all of our lives might be — regardless of faiths and faith traditions.

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