Dr. Ralph Silverman, of Lawrence, pulled his car up to the Delta terminal at JFK Airport a few weeks ago and popped open his trunk to make room for suitcases of two family members who were on their way out of the terminal. JFK is a busy, chaotic place with only a semblance of a system that seems to regulate the traffic of cars coming and going, those driving car services looking to pick up passengers, and those picking up friends and family for the ride back home or wherever they are off to next.
It was a routine exercise, one that is repeated by probably thousands of people at this and other airports on a daily basis. “I know that you are not supposed to sit there in your car blocking traffic or idling as you wait for your passengers to exit the terminal,” Dr. Silverman said. Because of the need to keep cars moving, you may have noticed cars with their hazard lights on, parked on the shoulders of peripheral roadways waiting to hear from their friends or families so that they can swoop into the airport and pick up those waiting without adding to the airport congestion.
Dr. Silverman followed a similar routine. He says that he circled in and out of the Delta Airlines terminal several times until he heard from his family members–two teenage boys arriving in New York in order to attend camp upstate. “They called me to say they had their luggage and they were on their way out to meet me,” he says.
It was at that point that he stopped and opened the trunk when one of the security officers ordered him to move his car. He responded that his passengers were on the way out to meet him. Dr. Silverman says he was attired in a dress shirt and slacks with a black yarmulke on his head–in other words, easily identified as an Orthodox Jews. “That’s when the officer orders me to move anyway and adds, ‘I know you people. I know the tricks you people pull. Now move your car!’ the officer said.”
Silverman was stunned, as was another bystander who overheard the exchange. The officer was not intimating but actually profiling Dr. Silverman, suggesting that he was indulging in some kind of trickery or subterfuge so that he would not have to give up his spot in front of the airline terminal or give up his space. This was the furthest thing from reality in this instance.
Without any input or assistance from the officer or the company he works for, I discussed the situation with Dr. Silverman and the fact that the officer had possibly observed people dressed in a similar fashion indulging in this type of behavior that does not shed a positive light on any of us. Still, and particularly at a time when racial and ethnic profiling are so very much in the news, the officer had no right and was way off base to accuse a complete stranger of abusing the system of picking up passengers at the airline terminal in defiance of usual traffic flow procedure.
“By this time, my passengers were already at my car and had placed their suitcases in my trunk. But I was not going to move until I was able to get the officer’s name and badge number down so that I could report his offensive and probably illegal behavior,” Silverman said. That’s when the officer removed his name tag and hid his badge and badge number under his shirt. After almost an hour of refusing to budge and in a sense standing his ground, some other personnel on the scene managed to summon a supervisor who heard Dr. Silverman’s complaint and instructed the officer to supply the doctor with all his identification information.
“Is this the introduction and the welcome that people receive when they first arrive in New York at JFK?” Dr. Silverman asks rhetorically as we discussed and reanalyzed the incident the other night. It is about five weeks since this occurred, and Dr. Silverman has asked that the time elapse so as to give the authorities ample opportunity to respond to his letters–which, to date, they have not done.
Letters of complaint describing the matter in detail were sent to Thomas Marano, the CEO of AirServ, the company that supplies security for the terminal areas at JFK, and David Samson, the chairman of the Port Authority. A copy of the letter was also sent to Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
“There should be no place in this country for anti-Semitism and racism,” Dr. Silverman wrote to the officials. He added, “Innocent passengers . . . should not be subjected to abuse by hateful, racist guards.”
One of the benefits of social media is that I can take a column like this and when it is about half done post it on Facebook or on our 5TJT website to see what people think about an idea. If I get a reaction, then I have the extra added attraction of posting some of that feedback in a column like this when it appears in print.
And that is precisely what I did on Monday. I posted a synopsis of Dr. Ralph Silverman’s experience with the traffic officer/security guard at JFK. The reaction was intense, with over 35,000 people reading the post on Monday alone, hundreds liking it on Facebook, and dozens commenting upon the experience.
The reaction, as can be expected, was split. Some thought that the guard should be fired for profiling Dr. Silverman. Others felt that Silverman may have caused a chillul Hashem and that if an authority figure says to move your car then you just pay heed and do so. Still others felt, perhaps unlike any other minority in a similar situation, that if the guard was profiling Dr. Silverman as the typical person feigning busyness with his car in front of the airline terminal, then other Orthodox Jews probably gave the security person plenty of legitimate reasons to feel that way. You can rest assured that there is no other group anywhere that feels that others are justified in ethnically or racially profiling them.
Here is a sampling of some of the online opinion that was expressed on this matter. Miriam Esther writes, “My heart is crying out to Hashem for mercy because here we have a double chillul Hashem,” she says, and adds, “Let’s face it, we have all seen this type of behavior that the officer was anticipating from Dr. Silverman, and from other members of the tribe. He should have just said that he was sorry for blocking traffic and gone on his way.”
I’ve been to the airport many, many hundreds of times and so has Dr. Silverman, and in our discussion on the matter we both had no idea that this is a scam that is indigenous to our people or our tribe, as Miriam Esther writes. How could we have missed that one?
Benzy writes on Facebook: “Seriously? People are screaming about racial profiling because they are being arrested or killed, and this is what we’re complaining about? That’s not racial profiling. It’s some traffic security guard being a jerk.”
Michal writes, “When you pull up to the curb to load your passengers, they should already be outside. Otherwise, everyone would just be waiting there and saying that their family was exiting the terminal. I’ve been to many airports, and JFK is the only one that is super strict with this rule. That’s probably because people abuse it and the wait is too long.”
And Lillie writes, “The officer should be dismissed. Period. Dr. Silverman should file a civil-rights discrimination suit against the officer.” And on and on it goes.
Frankly, it is offensive to be singled out at an airport in such a fashion, especially when the accusation is unwarranted. That the officer tried to hide his name and badge number should tell you that he understood he was doing something wrong. In the meantime, we are waiting for someone in authority to acknowledge the receipt of the Silverman letter. Personnel, regardless of their level of employment, cannot be allowed to conduct themselves with such recklessness. Someone needs to take responsibility for what happened and discipline the officer and direct him to some sensitivity training. Dr. Silverman does not want the officer to lose his job, and that is not the objective here. A little less vitriol and condescending behavior would do the trick. v
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.