Update 2: After reading the post below, please read this post with more breaking news on this story: Did El Al Invent Charedi Violence To Shift The Blame Away From The Airline’s Mistakes? A Timeline And The ATC Audio Where El Al Receives Permission To Return To The Gate!
Update: Several videos have been added to the end of this post. There are has been zero evidence of any sort of physical violence that El Al claimed had occurred, nor has El Al clarified on which of their 2 problematic flights the alleged violence occurred.
The real heroes of this story once again are Rabbi and Rebbetzin Hendel of Chabad of Greece. You can donate directly to their efforts here.
Two El Al flights from JFK to Tel Aviv ran into issues on Thursday.
El Al flight 8 was delayed by nearly 4 hours and wound up landing in Tel Aviv after Shabbos started. It was going to divert to Rome, but it flew to Tel Aviv due to a medical issue.
El Al flight 2, operated by a Boeing 747, was delayed by more than 5 hours. It had been scheduled to arrive into Tel Aviv 5 hours before sunset on Friday. It was diverted to Athens before Shabbos. It dumped all of its passengers in Athens and flew empty to Tel Aviv on Friday evening as they can’t transport passengers to Israel on Shabbos.
There is a lot of controversy about this flight.
Betsalel Steinhart writes in The Times of Israel that some 200 religious passengers spent Shabbos in Athens and that the local Chabad House was fantastic in making sure that the passengers had a memorable Shabbos.
He says that:
- The flight was late to leave the gate as the bus taking the El Al crew to JFK was stuck in traffic. He faults El Al for not leaving sufficient time to get their crew to the airport before the flight.
- At 11:40pm the plane was still sitting in line for takeoff. At this point the religious passengers realized there was no way for the plane to make it to Israel before Shabbos, so several stood up and demanded to return to the terminal. The pilot announced that they would return to the terminal to let passengers off if everyone would sit down. After everyone sat down the pilot proceeded to take off rather than return to the terminal.
He has several other complaints about El Al, but the pilot’s blatant lie is shocking and is telling about how El Al deals with religious passengers.
Several other passengers confirmed the same story and lie by the pilot. Here is a full trip report by Ben Chafetz that was posted on DDF.
Ben is a fellow Clevelander and I reached out to him to hear his perspective and the confirm whether the pilot lied.
He booked a business class ticket from Cleveland to Tel Aviv via JFK to visit his daughter in seminary. American cancelled his Cleveland to JFK flight, so he quickly used his United miles to book a flight from Cleveland to LaGuardia (sounds familiar!). Traffic in NYC on Thursday was horrendous, but he did make it to JFK on time to checkin for his El Al flight.
They waited several hours for the El Al crew to arrive and boarded around 8:30pm. Everything was calm for the first hour, but then people started getting antsy.
He didn’t notice any violence on the flight, but there was tension in the air.
Ben and several dozen other religious passengers stood up and asked to exit the plane. Flight attendants told them that they would forfeit their tickets, and they all agreed to that condition as they didn’t want to break Shabbos. The pilot announced that he would return to the gate as soon as everyone sat down and then anyone who wanted to deplane would be able to, while those who wanted to continue to Israel should stay on the plane.
Everyone took their seats, but Ben said, “I can’t begin to describe the sinking feeling in my stomach as I saw the plane turn away from the terminals and face the runway.”
He was on the phone with his Rabbi at the time as he told him that he thought the plane was turning to try to take off. His Rabbi asked if anyone else was standing again, but nobody was standing, so his Rabbi told him that surely others would be standing if the pilot was lying and trying to take off. But then all of the sudden to everyone’s shock, the plane was in the air!
Ben said the pilot exacerbated a bad situation by saying that religious passengers would be able to spend Shabbos in Athens while non-religious passengers would have to deplane in Athens and wait for a new plane.
Non-religious passengers started howling against the religious passengers for ruining their weekend, but the pilot did not explain that El Al rules prohibited them from flying into Tel Aviv on Shabbos. The pilot had no choice but to divert the plane, but the pilot made it seem that the diversion was due to the requests of the religious passengers and that created needless tension on the flight.
I’ve written in the past about how how El Al circumvents Shabbos issues. They had to fly another El Al plane from Tel Aviv to Athens under an Israir flight number to bring the non-religious passengers back home. Plus they had to fly the 747 back to Israel without any passengers.
Religious passengers on the flight were getting very nervous as they didn’t know when sunset was in Athens. Ben says that the pilot could have calmed the nerves of many by letting them know that sunset in Athens was later than in Israel.
By all accounts, Shabbos in Athens was saved thanks to Rabbi and Rebbetzin Hendel of Chabad of Athens. Rabbi Sorotzkin was onboard and sent word about the large number of religious passengers on the flight. Ben says it looked like it was an oragnized Shabbaton, he could not believe how amazing it was. This isn’t the first time this year that Chabad of Athens has rallied and done that, so major kudos goes to them.
Ben says that it felt like a true unity Shabbos. Everyone from Chasidim to Jews who don’t look outwardly religious did not want to violate Shabbos and had beautiful meals and prayers together. While at the Friday night meal people seemed to keep to their own sects, by Shabbos lunch people were mingling with each other and having a grand unity Shabbos.
While he enjoyed the Shabbos, Ben says that he would never fly to Israel on a Thursday again. However Ben doesn’t plan to request compensation from El Al as he appreciated that he was accommodated at the Sofitel and taken care of on Shabbos and he doesn’t want El Al to stop offering that in the future to others who wind up in this situation. He comments that the best PR for El Al would have been if they managed to take any video of the beautiful Shabbos.
A travel agent on DDF reports and Ben confirmed that El Al only reserved hotel rooms at the Sofitel for passengers who reserved mehadrin meals. That’s yet another reason to reserve mehadrin glatt kosher meals. People paid for additional rooms and suites as needed at the hotel.
Arutz Sheva quotes former National Union lawmaker Yaakov Katz as saying about El Al, “Everything is lies. The captain lied the entire way and said untrue things. He said that we were soon leaving, that we would land before Shabbat. He said that he was returning to the gate but instead of returning to the gate he went and took off.”
While El Al does not operate on Shabbos, it’s not a surprise to religious Jews that have flown other airlines to Israel that other airlines are more respectful of their religion. That goes for everything from praying on a plane to kicking off religious passengers for seat assignment issues.
I’ve interviewed multiple El Al executives about a wide range of issues, from their mileage program to issues that they have with religious passengers, though El Al has yet to allow me to publish the interviews on the record and probably never will.
I’ve said that I don’t see how a Dr. Dao type of situation is avoidable on El Al as one day they will try to eject a religious passenger from a flight who won’t go quietly, and they will have to call law enforcement to forcibly remove him. I noted that many readers have asked why El Al doesn’t just designate the last few rows of the plane be designated as blue or pink on the seat map and those rows can be expanded or contracted as needed for passengers that desire separate seating?
The reps have said that would be discriminatory and would be comparable to the Rosa Parks story, though I don’t see how. This would entail religious Jews self-selecting to sit in the back of the plane.
Clearly this won’t be the last story that highlights that religious issues at El Al, but there needs to be a change for religious Jews as well.
This is not the first time this year that a Thursday El Al flight was diverted to Athens. I wrote about how El Al flight 8 stranded passengers at Athens airport here.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. Religious Jews need to stop taking flights that are too close to Shabbos. I wrote that earlier this year when an El Al flight from Newark to Tel Aviv was delayed 4 hours and arrived into Tel Aviv less than an hour before Shabbos.
As I said then,
I hope that Shabbos observing Jews can take these stories to heart and try to avoid taking flights that are scheduled to land within 6 or 7 hours of candle lighting time, unless there is a true emergency. That allows enough time for a 4 hour delay and time to get from the airport to your destination or it gives you the ability to wait 4 hours on the runway and then deboard at your origin airport without needing to cause a scene.
After seeing how El Al blatantly lied in this situation, I’ll change my recommendation.
Religious Jews, except in the case of an emergency, should not fly from North America on a flight that is scheduled to land in Israel on Friday, period.
United cancelled their flights to Israel on Thursday, but clearly El Al had no qualms lying to their passengers and then inconveniencing both their religious and non-religious passengers with a diversion that they knew would be unavoidable by taking off so late.
The reason El Al did that is likely so that they don’t need to cancel the return flight from Tel Aviv to JFK this morning. But clearly they don’t calculate the reputational cost of such a tactic.
Travel agents should steer their passengers away from these flights. Think about the client the travel agent risked upsetting in the MH370 story, before it turned out that he saved his life.
It costs tens of thousands of dollars annually for a family to practice religious Judaism in the US. Think about that the next time you select a Thursday flight departure to Israel in order to save a day of work or to save a couple hundred dollars on a flight.
El Al does not care about your religious observances, their bottom line will come first and that’s their prerogative. If you want to ensure that you don’t enter a situation where you have to violate Shabbos, then it’s up to you to know the risks and choose your flight responsibly.
People may not have been aware of the risks up until now, but it should now be abundantly clear that religious passengers should avoid these Thursday flights except in the case of emergency.
Here are some videos, courtesy of Ben Chafetz.
People getting nervous about Shabbos after sitting on the tarmac for hours:
Passengers asking to deplane while El Al reps tell them to stop taking pictures. The pilots would later agree to return to the terminal, but it was a ploy to get people to sit down so that they could take off:
One woman berates those asking to deplane by saying that they would arrive in Israel 90 minutes before Shabbos while other passengers tell her that you can’t fly to Israel in 7 hours:
Ben responds to rumors that they were supposed to divert to Rome. In fact a different El Al flight was supposed to divert there, but wound up flying to Tel Aviv on Shabbos due to a medical situation:
Were you on the flight? Share your experience in the comments!