Flight delays are a routine part of travel, and that is without the additional meteorological complications that can and do indeed turn things upside-down. That was the story last Thursday here in New York when two El Al flights were scheduled to leave New York during the early evening and arrive at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on Friday afternoon, in time for the observant passengers to reach home before Shabbos.
But last Thursday’s unexpected 5–6-inch snow assault on New York City changed things very dramatically for about 180 passengers on just one of those 747-400 jets aiming to land in Israel on Friday afternoon. Actually, both flights gave passengers on board an experience, a story, and now a memory that will last a lifetime.
The important points are that the planes left New York later than anticipated for a variety of reasons and once airborne had to deal with the realization that if the planes were to fly straight through they would land in Tel Aviv after the onset of Shabbos.
After boarding late because the flight crew was delayed due to the storm, and then sitting on the runway waiting for takeoff for another three hours, it became clear that something was up and that if these flights continue as per the now delayed schedule there would be serious Shabbos observance issues.
The end of the story, as you know, is that one plane stopped in Athens, Greece, where the religious passengers disembarked and spent what is now described as one of the most beautiful Shabbosos they ever experienced. The second flight flew about an hour into Shabbos because there was an ill passenger on board who required medical attention. According to reports, they received rabbinical authorization to continue the flight from Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef. That group spent Friday night and Shabbos in the airport.
Meanwhile, in Athens, where the group landed about an hour before Shabbos, hotel rooms were arranged nearby and meals were hastily prepared by Rabbi Mendel Hendel of Chabad of Athens and his staff. Yossi Baumol of Yeshiva Makor Chaim in Gush Etzion was on board the flight that stopped in Athens. We spoke with him on Monday after all had settled down and we had the opportunity to discuss and reflect on what happened.
“There was talk on the plane as time moved on that at this pace and with this departure time we would most likely land in Israel on Shabbos,” said Rabbi Baumol. He explains that one of the rabbis on board became the unofficial intermediary between the plane’s captain and those concerned about potential Shabbos desecration.
“Once we took off the captain assured us that we would be landing in Israel about an hour before Shabbos,” Yossi said. He explained that he could see that the plane was going as fast as a fully loaded passenger plane can fly, reaching as much as 650 miles per hour at some points. But then, he says, the plane slowed a bit, flying in the mid-500s, and that is when he believes the decision was made to land in Athens, although the passengers were not told anything about being diverted until about two hours prior to landing in Greece.
On the ground in Athens the office of Rabbi Sholom Ber Sorotzkin—the rabbi drafted by the crew as the go-between for the frum passengers—contacted Rabbi Mendel Hendel, the Chabad shliach in Athens, to tell him that he was going to be receiving a significant number of guests for Shabbos.
A short time later, at about 11:00 a.m. local time, Rabbi Hendel received a call from El Al telling him that a flight from New York was being diverted and that they are placing 60–70 people in a hotel near the airport who would require food for Shabbos. As it turned out, El Al made that calculation based on the number of glatt kosher meals that were ordered on the flight, under the assumption that that number represented those who observed Shabbos strictly.
The reality is that all the food service on El Al is kosher and under OU supervision. The other so-called “glatt meals” have an additional chassidic supervision. The end result, Rabbi Hendel says, is that 130 people in total stayed in Athens for Shabbos.
Rabbi Hendel has been the Chabad representative in Athens for the last 18 years. He is 42 years old and has three children. He says that the year-round Jewish community in Athens totals about 2,500 Jews. He adds that Athens is a great tourist hub and that he knows there is substantive representation of the Five Towns in the year’s tourists making their way to Greece’s capital city.
“We have constant guests at Chabad over Shabbos on a regular basis,” the rabbi says. “The first thing I did was call a chef to the kitchen at the Chabad House and had him begin cooking for Shabbos. Rabbi Hendel adds that he was already scheduled to have about 120 expected guests taking their meals at Chabad for Shabbos, so the efforts just had to be expanded. The focus, he says, was on the logistics and the clock because it was getting late and the Chabad House is about a 45-minute drive from the airport.
For his part, Yossi Baumol was figuring that the Shabbos meals would consist of whatever was left on the plane and perhaps some additional bread and possibly fruit. But the meals on Friday night and on Shabbos day exceeded everyone’s expectations. As far as the menu, Yossy says, there was plenty of gefilte fish, there was hot soup (he did not mention what kind), and a main course that consisted of meat, chicken, and shepherd’s pie, followed by pastries, coffee, and tea.
The rabbis present arranged shiurim and Torah lectures and everyone sat together—the yeshivish passengers with the chassidim along with the kippah serugah and modern Orthodox crowd. The wonderful and refreshing thing many observed was that we did not need an emergency or tragedy, thank G-d, to bring us together. This unusual situation brought everyone together, at least for this one Shabbos.
Rabbi Baumol says that he observed a puzzled hotel staff that expected a bunch of people to be somewhat disgruntled and unhappy about being diverted to a foreign city far from where they were expecting to spend the weekend. “Instead, they saw a bunch of strangers dining, singing, and even dancing together.”
Everyone in the group was so surprisingly exuberant, Yossi says, that at Shacharis on Shabbos morning, one of the group bought maftir in the room designated as the shul for $10,000, and a total of about $80,000 was raised for the proposed state-of-the-art mikveh in Athens.
Hashem certainly works in mysterious and circuitous ways. Certainly, there must be a less complex way to raise money for a mikveh in a foreign European city. But that is not for us to judge or draw any conclusions about.
We reached out to El Al for comment but did not receive a response by the time we went to press. Amongst other things there was fundamental bungling here, a poor response to an unexpected intense snow, and an element of insensitivity to the sacredness of Shabbos, which is so important to a large number of people who are El Al frequent fliers and customers.
For now Yossi Baumol says that the passengers on this flight, as well as the other flight that landed on Shabbos at Ben Gurion, have set up a WhatsApp group and are in touch with one another. They also retained an attorney to represent them, and their lawyer already met with El Al on Sunday in Israel. The group expects some kind of compensation, probably in the form of airline tickets or discounts.
Chances are El Al will argue that they were victims of the weather and therefore have limited liability. The point is that if you are worried about chillul Shabbos, the best thing is not to leave on Thursday night when Shabbos starts at 4:00 p.m. on Friday. That everyone involved had such a good and positive time was just an added attraction. Was it supposed to be like this? Apparently it was.
Read more of Larry Gordon’s articles at 5TJT.com. Follow 5 Towns Jewish Times on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter for updates and live videos. Comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome at 5TJT.com and on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.