Tefillin on airplanes

By | January 28, 2010

Many of you have probably heard by now about the Kentucky-bound US. Airways Express flight that was diverted last week when the flight crew was alarmed by a Jewish teenager putting on tefillin (New York Times).

It is completely understandable that the kid couldn’t have imagined a problem with doing this.  There are air routes where this occurs regularly , certainly on flights to and from Israel but also on many others into and out of cities with large Jewish populations.   He may have flown on one of those routes in the past; or he may have heard people in his community talking about praying on planes (there is extensive halachic literature on whether and when it is permissible and how to do it properly); or he may even have asked his rabbi before the flight what he should do if he couldn’t say his morning prayers before flying, and his rabbi (who also couldn’t imagine that there would be a problem) told him pray on the plane.  It is not at all surprising that he didn’t see anything wrong with doing so.  The people who are blaming him for what happened are just being idiots, most of whom are probably motivated by anti-Semitism or generalized anti-religious bigotry.

On the other hand, the people who are criticizing the flight crew for overreacting are also being unreasonable.  Is it really so unbelievable that a flight attendants on a plane bound for Kentucky would not be familiar with tefillin?  There are people in this country who have never met a Jew, let alone one who wears tefillin every day.  There are people who actually believe that Jews have little horns. You can mock that all you want, but when somebody stands up in mid-flight and starts strapping things to his head and arm, and when the flight attendant asks what he’s doing, he responds tersely because he’s in the middle of praying and not supposed to talk, exactly what is s/he supposed to think?

The people who have asked why no one else on the flight stepped in and explained to the attendants what was going on, have clearly not thought things through very well.  First of all, there were only 15 passengers on the flight.  Again, on a flight bound for Kentucky, just how many of those fifteen passengers do you think were familiar enough with tefillin to explain them coherently?  Independent of that, when there is an in-flight security situation, the crew does not advertise that fact to the passengers, nor do they even tell the passengers they are diverting the plane until it is absolutely necessary.  If the crew handled the situation properly, no one knew what was going on until long after the decision to divert had already been made.

This was an unfortunate incident in which reasonable actions by everyone involved led to a seemingly unreasonable outcome.  That happens sometimes, and vilifying people over it is just silly.

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7 thoughts on “Tefillin on airplanes

  1. Nate

    I’m with Kittenmommy… I live outside Boston and know many Jewish people and have never heard of a tefillin before, nor would I have any idea it was part of the Jewish faith to look at it. To my ignorant eyes, it would look very strange. I don’t know that I would assume he was going to blow up the plane (the pictures I’ve looked up online don’t make the straps look like wires at all… but I guess I can forgive the flight attendant for misjudging it).

    It sounds like it was resolved as reasonably as possible (other than actually just going to talk to the kid some more.. but I understand that if you think it’s a bomb, you can’t just go make small talk). Sounds like the kid was handled as well as possible, and no lasting harm done.

    In the long run, this is probably a good thing – it’ll make more people (myself included) somewhat less ignorant, and maybe next time it won’t provoke such panic.

    As an aside – I think this is a really potent example of just how much we trust the security on airplanes – that we assume a 17 year old kid could bring in bundles of wires and boxes full of explosives and not get noticed by anyone.

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  2. bev

    I grew up in Kentucky, although granted not the “big city” of Louisville. I never met anyone Jewish until a summer program before senior year of high school, and none of the Jewish kids in the program were observant in any way that stood out for a Southern Baptist hick like me. I didn’t even really know that there are last names that are generally Jewish; I just lumped anything Germanic-sounding together and didn’t give it any thought. And even now, I don’t really get what stereotypical facial features I’m supposed to look for when I’m racially profiling and trying to separate Jewish from Arab from “istani.” So yeah, if the me then had, in today’s world, seen a young man with a skullcap and dark hair strapping a couple of objects to his body, I woulda probably freaked out, too.

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  3. Kittenmommy

    I have never seen or even heard of tefillin before yesterday, and I know a lot of Jewish people. I don’t know if I’d have thought the kid was a terrorist, but I’d have definitely been like, “What is that kid *doing*??” Because, wow. That’s not something one generally sees every day.

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  4. jik Post author

    It is not reasonable to assume that the flight crew even recognized that tefillin are a Jewish thing. Muslims wear skullcaps too, eh, and if the kid is ashkenazi, then he wasn’t wearing a tallis.

    Not to mention the fact that, at least in Israel, the suicide bombers have in fact started dressing up like Jews. They learn new techniques, just like we learn new techniques to stop them. I’d rather have people being proactive than thinking that something can’t possibly be dangerous because it’s not how the terrorists have done thing in the past. They also hadn’t flown hijacked planes into skyscrapers before 9/11, eh?

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  5. CA

    This would make sense if there were any Jewish terrorists in recent history blowing up (or attempting to blow up) American planes.

    Yes, racial (and religious) profiling is a sensible thing to do sometimes.

    And yes, it’s rather pathetic that people are so ignorant. Of course, that bochur’s community is probably equally ignorant of the world outside…

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