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the first mainline Protestant denomination to approve divestment of its investment funds from Israel (although later repealed by its membership, which is not hostile to Israel, unlike some of its leadership).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]

You may also like...

The Contarian
5 years 8 months ago

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.

5 years 8 months ago

“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.

nachum klafter
5 years 8 months ago

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

Bob Miller
5 years 8 months ago

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

Dave Weinstein
5 years 8 months ago

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.