Havdallah in Athens

By Dr. Jonathan Paley
Though much ink has been spilled over the now infamous “Shabbos Flight” LY002, JFK-ATH-TLV, I feel it is vital to counter the cynical but predictable spin that is currently being spewed by most media outlets. News reports have emerged, painting religious passengers as being unruly, outraged, and even violent. Though voices were raised and tempers flared, the objections were all regarding one thing and one thing only: the sanctity of Shabbos. Our legitimate concerns and the emotional response that emerged reflected the passionate and heartfelt connection an observant Jew has towards our holy Shabbat.

Rather than focusing on the divisions that the news media would like for you to hear about, I wanted to highlight the beautiful Shabbat that ensued, a Shabbat that I and all who experienced it, will remember for a very long time. I don’t recall an occasion where so many different stripes of Jews came together under one roof united by one common thread: we all valued and respected the centrality of shemirat Shabbat. The weekend was filled with demonstrations of sheer Jewish pride and so many spontaneous acts of chesed from one Jew to another.

It began when the passengers who chose to get off the plane in Athens strode down the rolling staircase to enter the buses that would take us to our hotel. It was truly inspiring to see the different types of Jews walking down that staircase, each one demonstrating his/her commitment to our tradition by getting off the plane. On the bus, we joined in song, singing “Am Mekadshei Shevei,” celebrating our dedication to Shabbos Kodesh!

Though we were unsure of how things would play out, where we’d stay and what food we’d have to eat, we knew that without question, Shabbos observance trumps all and that’s what brought us together on those buses.

We were told to gather at the hotel across from the Athens airport where we would be given rooms. Unfortunately, the airline miscalculated the number of Shomrei Shabbat passengers (basing it on orders of glatt meals!), and we needed to quickly find one or two roommates to bunk with. Many people simply turned to their right and left and partnered up with complete strangers. Though I’m sure it must have been awkward for many, it was beautiful to see young pairing with old, and men carrying streimels pairing with guys in sneakers. I was fortunate to have two fellow “uber-commuters” with me and we were able to manage to secure a room together. The scene was surreal, even a bit uncomfortable, with a multitude of stressed and exhausted Jews straining to reach the counter, waving their passports, aiming to get noticed by the three hotel clerks trying to do their jobs. Ultimately, most got rooms, with about 30 people who may have preferred a quieter Shabbos, bussed to the Holiday Inn a few minutes away.

As all who were there can attest, the assistance of the local Chabad shluchim, Rabbi Mendel and Nechama Hendel, was nothing less than extraordinary. They had thought of everything we might possibly need, over 180 unexpected Shabbat guests; tea lights for candle lighting, Kiddush wine, paper goods, and plentiful food for the Shabbat meals, even including delicious fresh fruit and cake for dessert! It was as if they had anticipated our arrival for weeks!

After rushing to organize our few “carry-on” belongings and hastily prepare for candle lighting, we gathered downstairs for Kabbalat Shabbat, in our elegant “bigdei Shabbos,” or rather whatever we were wearing on the plane. Many were in t-shirts and jeans, some in sweatpants, others who had some foresight to bring a spare shirt in their carry-on were able to change into fresh clothing but most of us, men and women(!), had to manage in the same outfit for three days. The Chasidim among us wore their usual black and white garb which made it that much more diverse. It was a sight to behold, all of us together, singing and dancing to welcome the Shabbat Queen as one. No judgement, no labels, no barriers. We were all simply Jews. It was something.

The meals were festive, with each table composed of differing languages and backgrounds. We sang zemirot without birkonim, many just singing without words to the familiar melodies. Again, dancing broke out with some Sefardi niggunim mixed with Ashkenazi tunes and there were multiple and diverse divrei Torah. In one of them, someone pointed out that the first passuk of the Haftorah from Hoshea refers to the prophecy about “El Al not rising up.” Seriously. Check it out!

I enjoyed the privilege of leading some of the singing and dancing with a number of friends and we sang a beautiful harmonious rendition of “Kah Echsof,” composed by The Karliner Rebbe, along with some Karliner Chassidim. Later, I spent the long night schmoozing with friends, some old and some brand new, Americans and Israelis, all of us savoring the memorable experience. I was surrounded by all sorts of people: friends from the Five Towns and Far Rockaway, fellow longtime commuters, former and current patients, a Knesset minister, rabbanim, and journalists. We all missed our families who were waiting for us and pledged to come together at some future time.

Shabbat day continued as the night before with an apropos “multicultural” Jewish davening with dati leumi ba’alei tefillah, a yeshivish gabbai and an Israeli Sephardi ba’al korei. Perfect. Before kerias haTorah, we were told by Rabbi Hendel about an initiative to raise money for a new mikveh in Athens. Apparently, local women have had to fly abroad or endanger themselves in the sea hours away. Within a few minutes, it seems that over $100,000 was pledged for the endeavor! Who knows? Perhaps the whole adventure transpired for this reason alone, to collect much needed funds for this holy and important undertaking…

Lunch was enjoyed with everyone sitting again in different places and stories and anecdotes were shared. I learned about a couple from Miami Beach whose many Israeli grandchildren had assembled to host them. We kept them busy and became their surrogate family. Another older woman was there with her brother and daughter, sadly missing her grandson’s aufruf. We sang with her too and drank Lechayim to the simcha in Beit Shemesh. I will look forward to having my wife dance with her at the wedding this week.

Dr. Jonathan Paley with David and Susie Schwartzstein

As Shabbat came to a close, we enjoyed a bittersweet Havdallah, with the realization that we would likely not soon have the same opportunity to come together as one. As we exited the hotel to re-enter the airport, we gathered for a group photo, together singing “Yevanim Nikbetzu Alai!” We all understood one thing: What unites is so much more powerful than what divides us. Am Yisrael is strong, determined, and unflinching in our dedication to Shabbat observance and as we have learned many a time; not only do our people protect the Shabbos—it is Shabbos that protects our people! 


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