Tefillin terror on US flight

An airline crew feared the worst when a passenger began unfurling tefillin mid-flight. The plane was diverted and police closed roads around the airport. The incident sparked much debate — and criticism of authorities for their lack of tolerance

By Andrew Silow-Carroll, January 28, 2010

The New York Daily News likes to think of itself as the plain-speaking voice of the city.

So when a US Airways jet made an unscheduled stop in Philadelphia after a flight attendant had grown suspicious of a teenage passenger wrapping himself in what turned out to be tefillin, the News led its report with a blunt assessment: “What schmucks.”

Early in the news cycle, that seemed about right. Calev Leibowitz, 17, was on his way from New York to Louisville, Kentucky, when he took out the black straps and leather boxes that an observant Jew lashes to his head and arm during morning prayer.

The attendant alerted the pilot, the pilot radioed Philadelphia, and soon Calev was being led off in handcuffs. After patiently explaining the ritual to local police, he and his sister were allowed to take a later flight to Louisville.

Press coverage was rabid in this era of foiled underwear bombings and general paranoia. The New York Times assigned four reporters to Operation Tefillin, and for a while the story topped those lists of “most emailed”. In the online comments sections, readers wanted to know why the Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) had it in for Jews. Others felt it was typical of a bureaucracy that lets “political correctness” stand in the way of racial profiling. After all, sniped a contributor to a popular Orthodox blog: “It takes great wisdom to put into place procedures to courteously board Muslim extremists flying one way and paying cash, and whose fathers have alerted authorities to the danger.”

Any second I expected to get forwarded one of those hysterically anti-Obama screeds that Tablet, an online Jewish magazine, has begun filing under “The Emails of Zion”.

And then a funny thing happened — call it The Revenge of the Schmucks. At some point, readers and the media started to agree that the authorities had acted reasonably under the circumstances. A few Orthodox web commentators even turned on poor Calev for using poor judgment in whipping out his tefillin mid-flight.

We snickered when the Philadelphia police spokesman referred to the boy’s “olfactories”, but that only proved his point when he said: “It was unfamiliarity that caused this.”

Even the boy’s rabbi acknowledged: “You can’t expect the whole world to know what this ritual is all about.”

By now everyone agrees that the only reform needed was perhaps a seminar for flight attendants in how to recognise unfamiliar religious rituals.

And give the TSA credit. They responded well when rabbis told them about the rituals of Succot, and last spring dozens of Jews could be seen boarding planes carrying spear-like lulavim and grenade-shaped etrog boxes.

I feel safer already.

Andrew Silow-Carroll is editor of the New Jersey Jewish News

Last updated: 4:40pm, January 28 2010