Say a prayer before you fly

By Elisheva Katanka, July 25, 2008

Airport prayer rooms can help bring together people of different faiths

A rabbi and an Israeli bus-driver go to heaven. The bus-driver is let in first, but when the rabbi protests, an angel proclaims: "When you used to speak from the pulpit, you put congregants to sleep, but on the bus, everyone prayed!"

Flying has always been a religious experience for me. The airport induces a state of slight anxiety in me, Not a relaxed flier, as latte in one hand, passport clutched in the other, I eagerly await the feeling of solid ground beneath my feet on arrival.

On discovering Heathrow's "interfaith prayer room", it occurred that a place to pray in an airport may indeed be a practical idea. Airports have moved on from their former status as a point of departure and arrival, and have now become central to linking those from all walks of life, increasingly establishing a global connection at the core of contemporary civilisation. With the ever-expanding nature of air travel, the airports of the world reflect not only their local community, but the global community. Believers of many faiths travel for religious reasons. The idea of pilgrimage, visiting a sacred place, is common to Jews, Christians, Hindus, Muslims and others.

But can we all pray together?

Halachah states that it is forbidden to daven in an interfaith chapel, as any space that is used for idol worship is prohibited to us Jews. However, if the space is used for Muslim worship, it seems that most poskim (arbiters in Jewish law) allow you to daven there, as is the case in the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, which is used both as a mosque and synagogue.

The idea of being in transit reflects the spirit of internationalism. Trying to find a common denominator between faiths, and to overcome religious prejudice, endeavours to gloss over religious and international politics in a place that is the epitome of multi-ethnic diversity. The events of 9/11 revealed a clash of universal cultures that shocked the world. America, the ultimate embodiment of universalism and tolerance, was suddenly under siege, its democratic values under attack. The global reaction has left little room for universal acceptance, with religions and cultures dramatically colliding, pointing fingers at each other as the cause of the tragedy.

Has history taught us nothing? Is it naïve to try and force compatibility of wildly diverse cultures by creating a multifaith prayer room and inviting members of different faiths to put differences aside and share a small space for meditation? Or is it worthwhile investing in a space where passengers of various religions and cultures can stand together and peacefully share a spiritual goal detached from prejudice and perhaps en route to a better world?

Elisheva Katanka is a former JC intern who is now working in public relations
Last updated: 12:09pm, August 18 2008