Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Teffilin Bomber

An incident that occurred last week on a USAir flight from Laguardia Airport in New York to Louisville, Kentucky has generated much debate in the Orthodox world. It is synopsized in a Philadelphia CBS affiliate news broadcast that can be viewed in the above clip.

Here is what happened. A 17 year old Orthodox Jew by the name of Calev Lebowitz decided to Daven Shacharis on that morning flight. That of course entailed putting on Teffilin.

Flight attendants noticed it and - unfamiliar with Teffilin - approached the young man and started questioning him about it. He responded quietly and politely explaining what Teffilin are and why he was wearing them.

Nonetheless the flight was immediately diverted to Philadelphia International Airport where it was surrounded of police, FBI, the TSA, and all manner of security officials. They boarded the plane, saw the Teffilin, interviewed the young man and apparently saw immediately that there was no real threat and let him go.

First let me say that this young man is completely innocent of any wrongdoing. He did absolutely nothing wrong. Furthermore I would add that he seemed to handle his predicament with poise and honor in a way that might even be seen as a Kiddush HaShem.

How many of us have Davened in a plane? I have. Dozens of times. Without incident. He was not disruptive, sat in his seat, and did what I have suggested all of us do in similar situations. He did not try to make a Minyan, stand in the aisle, block any lavatory entrance, or in any way hinder the flight staff from carrying on their duties. There was absolutely no commotion at all.

But neither do I feel that the flight attendants and airline officials did anything wrong. They were acting with an ‘abundance of caution’ as one airline official said. I do think they over–reacted but who can blame them in this new climate of underpants suicide bombers?

And yet there are a lot of people very upset at this airline. They apparently see this as some kind of anti-Semitic incident.

I can say with almost 100% certainty that this was not the case. Those who think it was are very angry and want to make an issue out of it. One normally very gentle person I know has suggested we boycott this airline – and make our upset feelings publicly known! They think our freedom was stepped on and if we don’t speak up we will get a lot more of this.

My answer to such suggestions is - God forbid! That would almost certainly turn an overly cautious error in judgment by airline officials into a Chilul HaShem by us.

Are we so ethnocentric that we think that everybody knows what Teffilin are? The truth is that very few people outside of Judaism have ever seen - or even heard of Teffilin. Why would they? What circumstance would they normally encounter where they might learn about them? Most non Jews have no such circumstance. When was the last time anyone saw a non Jew in a Shul for Shachris?

Flight attendants may be a bit better informed about it if they fly out of major cities where there is a large Orthodox Jewish population. But even that is no guarantee -unless they fly international flights to Israel. On most domestic flights Orthodox passengers manage to Daven before or after a flight.

In this case it is obvious that these flight officials never saw and did not know what Teffilin are. They saw a strange item being worn by a man who seemed to be praying. They didn’t know if he was Jewish or Muslim. They just knew that he wasn’t Christian as the vast majority of flight attendants are themselves Christian.

Muslim suicide bombers are usually very religious. The flight attendants see this young man and think ‘What if that little black box on his forehead has a bomb in it – like the Muslim who hid a bomb in his underpants?’ If I were a flight attendant and had never seen Teffilin before I would be just as suspicious. How hard is it, after all, to put some explosive material into a little black leather box and disguise it as Teffilin? That is what I believe happened here.

I am always very self conscious when I have to Daven in an airport or on a plane. I do in fact realize that most people have never seen a Jew Daven before. A non Jew who never saw or heard of it can easily mistake me for a religious Muslim praying before I blow myself up.

What can we do to prevent this type of thing happening in the future? I don’t know. I would suggest that we all try very hard to find ways to Daven before or after a flight. If this is not possible it is probably a good idea to talk to the flight attendants before-hand and explain it to them. If they still forbid it, then it shouldn’t be done. Daven quietly in your seat inconspicuously without Teffilin and put them on after the flight.

In the meantime it would be a good idea if the Orthodox public service agencies like the Agudah or OU contact the TSA and airline officials to try and make awareness of Talis, Teffilin, and prayer part of flight attendant training. In this way the entire problem will be solved. I believe that the Agudah has actually said they were going to do this.

The one thing we should not do is make an international incident out of it. Instead we need to understand what happened, that nobody was at fault, and all get on with our lives. No one is to blame here except Islamist terrorists who have put fear into the hearts of every man woman and child who will ever take a flight anywhere.

I still remember a time where there was no such thing as a security check. In those days, you bought a ticket and got on the plane. That was it. Then in 1970 the PLO hijacked and blew up a plane. That changed everything. Islamic fundamentalists took a cue from that - which culminated in 9/11… and here we are.