Tefillin Terror!

I just watched the YouTube of Chief Inspector Joe Sullivan of the Philadelphia Police Department explain what went wrong on that flight to Louisville Thursday morning. A cabin attendant, not familiar with the Jewish ritual device, became alarmed, etc. The plane was diverted to Philadelphia, where police determined that the device was no threat to safety. It is a black box worn on the forehead, with leather straps leading from it to another box worn on the arm. The device is known as an olfactory.

Something doesn’t smell right about the story.

The problem was certainly not with the Philadelphia PD. They couldn’t know about olfactories, having their hands full coping with all those late-night disturbances at the Philadelphia Yeshiva, one of the most notorious party-schools in the country.

The destination of the plane is cause for suspicion. Louisville is where the Presbyterian Church (USA) is headquartered. PCUSA was the first mainline Protestant denomination to approve divestment of its investment funds from Israel (although later repealed by its membership, which is not hostile to Israel, unlike some of its leadership). Its Israel-Palestine Mission Network routinely posts some of the worst anti-Israel – and, on occasion, anti-Semitic – material on the globe. I betcha they planted the olfactories, just to make Jews look bad. The seventeen year old passenger probably wasn’t even Jewish but evangelical, about the only people they hate more than Jews.

The ones who would seem to have been most culpable are the Homeland Security people. It’s not like they are all sleeping. They certainly have spent time making sure that they are not profiling. It takes great wisdom to put into place procedures to courteously board Muslim extremists flying one way and paying cash, and whose fathers have alerted authorities to the danger.

On the more serious side, it wasn’t the fault of the organized Jewish community. Mark Weitzman of the New York office of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (my employer) had the conversation with an official of Homeland Security three or four years ago. He spoke of the need of a manual about America’s different religious communities, and what they might be bringing on planes at different times of the year. We offered to provide the Jewish content. They were receptive, but there was no follow-up that we are aware of. (On a different occasion, I wrote such a piece for TSA, which has been more than cooperative each year in assuring that frum passengers will not be detonated for carrying their lulavim around Sukkos time.) At this point, Homeland Security will hopefully swing into action, and find a way to share the information with the airlines.

Should the young man have davened on the plane? I’ve fielded the question too many times today. Everyone I know has been sensitive to the problem of frightening passengers who may not be familiar with the arcane habits of traditional Jews. (A yeshiva-days friend recalls the time his father, a butcher, came into his store and found his tefillin torn apart. Suspecting a worker, he told him that he was not interested in punishing the culprit, but finding the missing parshiyos. The worker ‘fessed up. Asked why he did it, the worker told him that it was common knowledge that Jews worship money, which is why they don tefillin each day. Inside those tefillin, of course, was a wad of cash.) We try, whenever possible, to daven in a quiet part of the passenger waiting area before or after the flight. More of us should try to do so. It is not always possible. On some longer flights, the entire time appropriate for shacharis is spent on the plane. And even those who try to leave room enough to daven before a flight can get caught in traffic on the way to the airport or at security. Flights that seem to leave enough time to daven upon arrival often push up their arrival time because of ground delays.

The bottom line is that we should be more circumspect where possible, and try not to daven on planes whose passengers may become upset. If we have to, we should first notify a cabin attendant. We should not, however, assume all the responsibility upon ourselves. There is nothing illegal or inappropriate about quietly praying on one’s seat. (It may be an effective hedge against shoe-bombers and turbulence.) It is the airlines that bear the ultimate responsibility to familiarize its personnel regarding the habits of significant subpopulations of the flying public.

[Thanks to Mara Kochba, LA, for submitting the YouTube URL]

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24 comments to Tefillin Terror!

  • sara

    I cant believe that this happened on an American flight.I hope that from now on ,airlines will start training workers on different cultural beliefs and values,to avoid in the future incidents like this one….

  • David T.

    Yet another reason to fly El-Al wherever possible!

  • Mr. Cohen

    Rabbi Shlomoh Zalman Auerbach, Halichos Shlomoh, 1:95-96:

    It is better to pray Shemoneh Esrai sitting down than to stand in the aisle of an airplane, both because of concentration and consideration of others.

  • Melanie

    “It is better to pray Shemoneh Esrai sitting down…”

    That has nothing to do with whether or not one should wear tefillin!

    If only Americans would consent to profiling – but since they won’t, even those little boxes will become suspect and soon require xrays and silly “precautionary measures.”

  • David

    Would there be a heter to daven shacharis w/o tefillin and then put on tefillin upon arrival at the destination? Perhaps avoiding these kinds of problems is gounds for allowing davening without tefillin.

    [YA – I’m not going to do halacha in a combox, but my own feeling is not to advocate this too strongly. Davening w/o tefillin with the intention of putting them on later is a bedieved even when a person intends to put them on later. See Mishnah Berurah 66:2:16. It is true that when a person has a legitimate reason not to don tefillin at the time of saying Shma, e.g. he is outdoors, and it is too cold to expose himself to the elements – see ibid. 25:4:14 – he can say Shma and put on tefillin later. However, even if the present scare would be enough reason to pasken this way, such a psak will not solve the problem, since there will inevitably be people who disagree. To prevent chilul Hashem, we will still need to educate Homeland Security, TSA, and the airlines. Once that is done, it should not be our job to pull back from davening on a plane when circumstances really do not allow a person to daven before boarding, any more than we are seeing Muslims cease from unrolling their prayer carpets at airports. We should and must urge people not do daven on board unless absolutely necessary, and even then, only after explaining in advance to cabin attendants and to the people we immediately sit next to.]

  • mycroft

    “which has been more than cooperative each year in assuring that frum passengers will not be detonated for carrying their lulavim around Sukkos time.)”

    Certainly my experience this year. I was prepared with a printout of the TSA directive about allowing lullavim on board-but no TSA screener even questioned the item.

    Re Tfillin-while leaving Israel in 1972-the screener asked me what is that-I answere my tfillin then the screener asked me to say the first pasuk of Ashrei-I did and he stated have a good trip.

    My brother who lives in Israel- has a couple of times in the past few years been asked while leaving Israel when the screener saw his tfillin:
    “what is that”
    I am not a professional screenr but by these experiences there may be some objective reason why things that appear to be tfillin boxes are scary to security officials.

  • Shalom Rosenfeld

    “that frum passengers will not be detonated”

    Um … you mean *detained*, right? Or their *luggage* detonated?

    [YA – No. It was deliberate. I was being a wiseguy.]

  • Chaim

    In defense of my town, take a look at the rather extensive (and accurate) description appearing in Philly’s local paper, including a short compendium of relevant halachos.

  • Garnel Ironheart

    But remember that a couple of years ago a group of Muslims purposefully antagonized the system by acting as suspiciously as they could both before and during a routine American flight. Then when they were finally called on it, they screamed racism.
    As a result, anything other than “Miss, can I have more peanuts?” is going to attract negative attention these days.
    However, there’s always another way to deal with this. Explain to the stewardess (am I still allowed to call her that?) about what you’re about to do and even see if the galley is temporarily free so you can do it there. It’s always worked for me.

    Oh, and they’re “phylacteries” which means that those who like them are “prophylactic”!

  • Ziv Carmel

    As someone who flies on approximately 70 or 80 domestic flight segments a year, I was very surprised to see this headline. I have donned tefillin and davened shachris in airplanes countless times (always seated) and no flight attendant or fellow passenger has ever said anything to me. I don’t stand while davening in an airplane specifically because of the attention that it would draw.

    While I don’t know all the details of this specific incident, I wonder if this toung man was standing or shukling. Might a lack of regard for the psak in post #3 have contributed to this whole ordeal?

  • Myron Chaitovsky

    Flying in the Bible Belt with my lulav esconced in an architect’s tube evoked a query from the technician at the scanner. Upon hearing my explanation, he smiled “Oh, Tabernacles…”

    Maybe the Gideon Bible shouldn’t only be stashed in hotel rooms but in TSA break rooms, too.

    FWIW, I’ve davened on any number of airplanes (usually seated, Mr Cohen) and –puzzled looks aside–never any hassle. Of course, when we’ve reached the point that we have to suspect explosive ‘gatkes’, who’s to say what is or isn’t a legitimate fear? Some readers may be old enough to remember when drugs were smuggled into Israel in hollowed out seforim by individuals dressed as haredim.

  • Ori

    Melanie: If only Americans would consent to profiling – but since they won’t, even those little boxes will become suspect and soon require xrays and silly “precautionary measures.”

    Ori: How do you propose to do this profiling? Even ignoring converts, Muslims range from black Sudanese all the way to pure Caucasians (for example, in the Caucasus). Racial profiling will give us a false sense of security.

  • Aharon

    Rabbi Adlerstein,
    I presume you mean “phylacteries” and not “olfactories””?
    [YA – Nope. That’s what the officer said. Watch the YouTube]

  • Yehoshua Friedman

    The olfactory went bankrupt years ago because nobody was buying their prophylactics. It can’t be that. Any danger of frum passengers being detonated has been blown up beyond proportions. This is an issue which has been going on since before the days of Napoleon Blownapart. That said, tefillin do look suspicious because they look like some kind of junction box with connections. Since explosives don’t have to contain metal any more, people who don’t know are suspicious. People who don’t like us will cynically use that fact. Perhaps this event will make tefillin more famous in the world. Let the bad guys fear us because Hashem’s name is on us!

  • L. Oberstein

    It would seem that one could daven on the plane and put on the tefillin later and recite the Shema. Why start up? I agree with Myron “we’ve reached the point that we have to suspect explosive ‘gatkes’, who’s to say what is or isn’t a legitimate fear? “. The problem underlying all of this is that we do not want our gentile friends to start thinking that the Jews are the problem, if we didn’t have the Jews we wouldn’t have explosive ‘gatkes’.

  • Observer

    The kind of profiling needed is NOT racial profiling; in this context it makes no sense. What you do have to look for is behavioral issues, plus better connection to data in the pipe-line. For instance, young men buying one way tickets for cash should raise a question mark.When he is going on a visitors visa, that should make the question mark even stronger, as should the fact that he spent time in places like Yemen (where al quaida is known to have bases). And, when a man tells the American Embassy that his some has become redicalized, and is likely to try something bad, then you check to make sure that you check to see if this young man’s profile matches the profile of the young man who spent time in Yemen, who is traveling on a one-way ticket purchased with cash.

  • Phil

    A couple of rabbis I know were once questioned by airport security, not too long after 9-11, because of “ropes” hanging out of their shirts.
    Where can I find good quality tsitsis like that?

  • lee

    Thanks for a good laugh!!

  • Joe Hill

    Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, shlita, when asked if one should pray with a minyan on an airplane, said yes, adding that he does it “all the time.” While strictly speaking it might be permitted to pray at your seat, Rabbi Scheinberg prefers that one pray with a minyan, but quietly in a way that doesn’t disturb others.

  • Dave Weinstein

    It is the airlines that bear the ultimate responsibility to familiarize its personnel regarding the habits of significant subpopulations of the flying public.

    What percentage of the flying public do you think are going to lay Tefillin?

    You’re effectively talking about half of the Orthodox population of the United States as an upper bound.

  • Bob Miller

    Does this mean we have to use tefillin without modern circuitry?

  • nachum klafter

    When I fly, I carry on my tallis and tefillin even if I’ve dovened already because I am worried about my checked baggage being separated from me, which has happenned a few times.

    On two occasions (once in Cincinnati and once in Philadelphia) I was asked to open up my carry on bags and show them the tefillin, which apparently looked strange to them on the x-ray of my carry on bag. On one of those occasions (the one in Cincinnati), the homeland security officer who was inspecting it rubbed a small cloth (resembling a bedika cloth) over it. I assume he was checking for explosive materials.

    When I am traveling witout my family, I have been frequently profiled for extra security searches, including my bag and a “wand” metal detector search. I assume this is because of my yarmulke, because if I travel wearing an inconspicuous hat over my yarmulke this does not seem to happen.

    I don’t think anyone in our community should be critical of a 17 year old frum boy who wanted to doven be-zeman with tefillin.

    From now on, if I intend to doven on a plane, I would plan to notify the flight attendant that I am going to do so. I would probably ask my rov whether I can do so sitting down, even though my normal minhag is to do so standing. I would probably also ask my rov whether I can doven shacharis that morning without tefillin (and put on tefillin later that day) simply because the fear of arousing suspicion and causing a similar incident with my tefillin would be too disruptive to my kavana. I would probably ask similarly about standing during boruch she-amar, yishtabach, and shemona esrei.

    Nachum Klafter

  • Yeed

    “Rabbi Chaim Pinchas Scheinberg, shlita, when asked if one should pray with a minyan on an airplane, said yes, adding that he does it “all the time.” While strictly speaking it might be permitted to pray at your seat, Rabbi Scheinberg prefers that one pray with a minyan, but quietly in a way that doesn’t disturb others.”

    1. It has been many, many years since R. Scheinberg travelled on airplanes with any frequency that he can use the phrase “all the time”.

    2. It is impossible to daven on a plane with a minyan “in a way that doesnt distrub others.” Impossible. Planes are designed so that every inch of space is utilized. Just because most people are decent and good and dont actually shout at the men to move [and would they listen?] does not mean they arent disturbed.

    3. People simply have to use common sense about these issues. Not only for trying to daven with a minyan, but also for things like putting tefillin on standing v. sitting.

  • The Contarian

    Avira D’ara Machkim. I was in Yerushalyim when the Tefilin incident occured I realized that it was the week of Parhas Bo which contains two of the four Parshiot of Tefilin in the Torah. What a erevelation.