MAILBAG: An Open Letter To El Al About An Incredible “Shabbos Of Unity” In Athens

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The following was written by an El Al passenger stranded in Athens, Greece after their flight was too late to continue on to Israel before Shabbos:

This Shabbos I had the tremendous privilege to be a part of something amazing, beautiful and enlightening. I am hoping El Al will see this and understand that there is a much better headline than the false headline “Haredim Riot On Plane” which I currently see online.

Here is the short of it. Our El Al flight was supposed to leave at 6:30pm. 3 members of the crew were late and we started boarding at 8:30pm during which the crew members arrived. At 9:10pm the flight doors were closed and everything was calm for about an hour.

At around 10pm many of the passengers who were concerned about Shabbos starting asking the crew members for detail about departure and no answers were given other than we are leaving in 5 minutes. Keep in mind, that at 10:25pm sitting on a JFK runway,  El-AL’s website showed our flight as enroute having departed at 9:30PM.

I was sitting in business class, my seat was directly next to the stairs going to second floor, and 3 rows behind the first class food prep galley. I heard every exchange. At no time was there any physical threat presented by passengers concerned about Shabbos. I am loathe to use the term Chareidim, this was not some Neturei Karta protest full of black clad chasidim spewing nonsense. These were Jews from all walks of life and varied backgrounds who were concerned about Shabbos.

At 11:35pm there were about 40 passengers, myself included, who stood by the exit door and expressed our wishes to disembark from the plane.  By this time we were sitting on the tarmac for two and half hours. One of the stewardesses told us that if they take us back to the gate and we get off the plane we would lose our tickets and not be rebooked.  I am not sure if she was trying to shock us into sitting or if this was the real policy, but our response was unanimous;. every single person said that’s fine, we are ok with that, just take us back to the gate so we don’t violate Shabbos.   Not one person said, “What?? No,you have to rebook us”, or, “you can’t do that”, there was a simple, basic understanding, we had Shabbos.

At one point, someone whom I later found out to be Rabbi Shalom Ber Sorotzkin got on the intercom and said that he spoke to the pilot, and that the pilot guaranteed we would get to the airport before Shabbos, and that he (Rabbi Sorotzkin) arranged for everyone to have a place and a meal for Shabbos if they did not have time get to where they needed since we would arrive only one hour before Shabbos.

Many of us, myself included did not sit down and expressed our desire to go back the gate.

At that point the captain came onto the intercom.  He told us we were going to go back to the gate as soon as everyone was seated.  And we all went back to our seats.

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.   In less than 6 minutes after telling us to return to our seats to go back to the gate, we were in the air. FY I- there was no Wifi on the flight which meant our only source of information for the rest of the flight was the El-Al crew.

Four hours into the flight the Captain announced that because of the “Cheiredim” the plane would stop in Athens.  At which point, all the people who want to get off for Shabbos can get off the plane first, and then, (and here is the kicker), all the people who want to continue to Israel will also have to get off the plane and go on a different plane from IsraAir to go to Israel.

What a shame… I wish El Al had announced the truth.  We were stopping in Athens because El-Al made a series of bad calls, and once they landed they could not depart on Shabbos which is why they needed an non El-Al plane to continue to Israel on Shabbos.

[IN HER OWN WORDS: Passenger Says EL AL Pilot LIED to Everyone “WE WERE HELD HOSTAGE” — Listen To AUDIO of Lying Pilot Talk To Air Traffic Control]

This only caused the internal tension to rise and as our only source of information was the crew, who were less than helpful and not at all sympathetic . To be very clear, no one was angry at the stewardesses, everyone understood that they did not make the decisions.  We were requesting to speak to the pilot or someone who can speak for the pilot. Again, there was no attempts to break into the cockpit, there were no physical altercations. Yes, there were some raised voices, but most of the time (I have the videos showing) it was secular Israeli passengers who came to yell at the passengers who were concerned about Shabbos that we were ruining their weekend.

This in itself was absurd because we did not make the decision to stop in Athens and the majority of the religious passengers preferred that we continue to Israel and be stuck in the Tel Aviv airport.

As the minutes crept closer to our arrival into Athens there were discussions on the plane about whether it was halachically better to stay on the plane or to disembark in Athens. We had no clue what to expect. Would we stay in the airport? Was there a hotel? What would we eat?

When they served breakfast I realized that the packaged egg which they served for breakfast and the half  a sandwich I had left from when I boarded the plane could very well be all we had to eat on Shabbos. I even put some nuts into my backpack for Shalosh Seudos.

When it was clear that we were landing in Athens and we would begin our descent we returned to our seats.  Many of us tried to separate our Muktza items and to make sure our Tallis and Siddur were easily accessible.

After the plane landed and we stopped we disembarked on one of those rollaway staircases to get onto one of several shuttles. I was one of the first people onto the shuttle and I watched as dozens of more Yidden came off the plane with no other thought than, to stay on the plane would be chillul Shabbos, and getting off the plane was the best chance of keeping Shabbos.   Chasidim got off the plane, men with black hats, colored shirts, in t-shirts, in suits, women with sheitels, snoods, no sheitels, in skirts, in pants; everyone coming off the plane was united in one thing – We believe in Hashem, and his Torah, and Shabbos was our gift and our inheritance and we would keep it.

As the first shuttle was full and started towards the airport (there were more shuttles behind us) everyone broke into a song for Shabbos Kodesh.

Once we got to the airport we were met by a women from El Al who was very sweet and took the time to explain to us that we were would be staying across the street (literally) at a hotel and they would take us as soon as the other shuttles arrive.

As they led us into the hotel it was very chaotic.  There were four hotel clerks and people started surging towards the front desk.  At that point, one Rabbi, whom I later learned was Rabbi Akiva Katz yelled above the crowd and explained to everyone that we would need to create orderly lines in order not to overwhelm the clerks.  He also let us know that they had set aside a place for davening and that Chabad had prepared food. This helped reduce the stress in the room and the process became more orderly as people were focused on getting to their rooms and ready for Shabbos in the 40 minutes we had left to Shkia.

Walking into Kabbalas Shabbos (I was late) was beautiful. The room was full of 60 or 70 men and about 10 women and everyone was singing.  Rabbi Jesse Horn from Yeshiva Ateres Kohanim led Kabbalas Shabbos. We were all so happy to be able to keep Shabbos, and the davening and level of simcha was very high. I think we must have danced four or five times during Kabbalas Shabbos and Maariv.

After Kabbalas Shabbos we walked through the hotel to the dining area and I can tell you with 100% conviction that what I saw was beyond anything I could have imagined.

85% of the dining area was reserved for our Shabbos meal.  The tables were set beautifully with bottles of wine, grape juice and challah rolls.   Where the hotel usually displayed it’s salad bars, and assortment of cold meats it was now filled with platters of gefilte fish, 6 or 7 large bowls with a variety of salads and dips, it was as if this had planned for weeks in advance. There was plenty of fleish for the main course and an assortment of side dishes to accompany it.

The Seudah was beautiful and everyone sang zemiros and niggunim and there were many Divrei Torah. Several people had stopped at the Duty free store to get bourbon and scotch for the Oilam, and it was very leibdige and the singing went on for quite a while I woke up several times during the night as I was still on NY time and every time I went downstairs to the lobby there were people learning together or talking about the Parsha.

Shacharis was another beautiful davening and it was interesting to see how it was a mix of Nusach Sefard, Sefardi, Ashkenaz.

After davening several people went to the kitchen to help Rabbi and Rebbetzin Hendel (the Chabad Shluchim in Athens) prepare for seuda.

There were also two shiurim being given, one in Hebrew, and one in English by Rabbi Yossi Baumol.

After the Shiurim we went to the dining room where like the previous night there were copious amounts of delicious food, a wonderful meat kugel wrapped in pastry, brisket, a large assortment of salads.  Unlike the previous night, where everyone sat next to people who were closest to them hashkafically, the seating during the Shabbos day Seuda was heterogeneous. Chasidim sat and schmoozed with Tzionim, Modox sat with black hats… I only use these labels so you can visualize the seating, but there were no labels at this Seuda, we sat in true achdus.

The rest of Shabbos and the subsequent trip back to the airport and our return flight to Israel was unremarkable in that I don’t need to bore you with the details.

First I would like to thank the following people.

Rabbi Shalom Ber Sorotzkin who had the foresight before the plane took off to have his organization contact El-Al and Chabad and put pressure on to make this Shabbos happen.

Rabbi and Rebbetzin Hendel, the Chabad Rabbi and Rebbetzin based in Athens, Greece.  They got the call at 11am Friday morning and by 4pm that same afternoon they had prepared a beautiful  Shabbos for 150+ adults which was not lacing in anyway.

My 150+ new friends and passengers who gave me an experience and Shabbos I will never forget.

Now a quick note to to El-AL.  Hi El-Al, I don’t know who handles your marketing and social media program but you wasted a huge opportunity.  Next time this happens, here is what you do. You make sure you get the same hotel and that Chabad sets up a beautiful Shabbos.  You hire a Greek photographer and video guy, you video the amazing Shabbos – and then you promote it as an El-Al sponsored Shabbos Unity.   If you need more advice feel free to call or email me, or just send me some tickets as a thank you.

I would like to leave off with a few thoughts having just spent one of the most amazing Shabbos of my life.

1.     150+ Jews from all backgrounds and hashkafic orientations, wearing every outfit possible walked off a plane with one thought – We will keep Shabbos, even if it means sleeping in an airport.

2.  Unlike our Great Grandparents, who were fired if the did not work on Shabbos (USA), or where were ostracized, and possibly incarcerated for keeping Shabbos (USSR). How often do we get a chance to be moser nefesh for Shabbos?  This was a tremendous gift from Hashem to us that we had the chance to show Hashem how much we love him and his Torah, and we ALL took it.

3.     Every parent in that hotel who was not able to be home with their children that Shabbos taught their child a lesson that they could not have taught them in a 100 Shabbosim at home.   They showed that Shabbos means so much to Mommy, Tatty, Ima, Abba, etc that they would walk off a plane in the middle of a foreign country with no guaranty of food or a place to sleep.

4.     Yom Tov in the Beis Hamikdash was probably like this Shabbos.   Jews from all over coming together for Hashem and his mitzvos.I hope to see all of my fellow passengers this Pesach bringing korbanos in the Beis Hamikdash.

May we be zoche to see Mashiach and the return of the Beis Hamikdash.

With much love
Ben Chafetz – Cleveland

(YWN World Headquarters – NYC)




29 COMMENTS

  1. Are you sure you made a kiddush hashem? Maybe you made a chillul hashem by showing the chilonim how much of a risk you are willing to take with shabbos, by flying on a friday in the winter on el al.

  2. A 6:30 departure is taking a risk, being that take-offs have a good chance
    of being delayed. So why wasn’t that taken into consideration by so many Shomer Shabbat passengers?

    Especially, when you write how you were moser nefesh for Shabbos….

  3. Thank you, Mr. Ben Chafetz, for taking the time and heart to write this beautiful letter so that we could know the truth of what happened but more importantly that we could all be inspired and uplifted by your shared Shabbos in Athens. To be honest, when I watched the videos and heard the singing on the shuttle bus I had some tears. Through the eloquence of your writing and the Shabbos joy so clear in the videos, even though I wasn’t there to experience it there in person, I still feel like I was given the privilege of seeing the hands of Hashem hard at work taking care of His beloved ones. It was awesome, inspiring and humbling all in the same breath. Thank you.

    Thank you, Yeshiva World News, for printing Mr. Chafetz’s letter and videos. Beautiful. We need more of this type of loving positivity. One beautiful story like this takes away a lot of the scary, uncertain and dark stuff and tips the scales over to the good.

    With much thanks, love and gratitude,
    Maria

  4. To all the El Al bashers, I can assure you that no other airline in the world would have made these types of accommodations for the many frum passengers on the flight. Yes, they might have cancelled the flights but from what I’ve read, several other airlines had the same types of issues of air traffic control having initially given then a take-off time and then kept pushing it back. That, combined with the late arriving crew was a perfect storm of tsoros for frum flyers evev Shabbos. As to Chabad, mi kamocha Yisroel and a special shout out and kol hakovod to Rav and Rebbitzen Hendel for their incredible organizational and logistical skills . Yes, sometimes El Al makes mistakes, and some of their flight crews lack good communications skills, but overall, Klal Yisroel is much better off having El Al than relying on the commercial airlines entirely for overseas travel to and from EY.

  5. Boruch Hashem. El Al could use some sensitivity training for religious passengers and more knowledge about Shabbos and what to do if such a situation would, G-d forbid, happen again. However, it would not be good to have even a non-Jew working on Shabbos to make a video of and for Jews, as the author suggested. It would be a good idea for the passengers to donate to the Chabad center that helped them as hakaras hatov, if they haven’t already.

  6. I hear and feel that I agree with Rebbe Yid. However, 1. I feel ElAl was unethical for lying when they didn’t return to the gate. Regardless if it’s thursday night or a random Tuesday night, a flight team and pilot shouldn’t lie to the passengers. I am not happy with Elal for doing that. 2. Unless an emergency, why take an international flight landing a few hours before shabbos? Was the flight ticket cheaper, was able to get out of work on that date, what was is it? I’m sincerely at a loss. 3. BH for Chabad and their Rav and Rebbetzin. They are truly remarkable. 4. I love the fact that Jews from all circles kept their heads up high and did the best they could with shabbos. With that said I’m overall not inspired. I think there is a great deal of honest introspection and review of hilchos shabbos due. “Mommy and Daddy” can show love for shabbos by not landing a few hours before shabbos in Israel. Yomtov in the Beis hamikdash probably didn’t involve near Michalel shabbos (or actual michalel shabbos on another Elal flight). I’ll respond “Amen” to your final Bracha.

  7. EDITED
    This was really a beautiful letter and really gives me great chizuk. I cried when I was reading it because though I only heard the “stories” of what happened on the plane, I did not believe them BH. This letter confirmed my feelings and I could NOT be more tired of this constant divisiveness as we blast each other for this or that. Boruch Hshem chilul Shabbos was averted! Mi kamocha Yisrael!! I have no words to describe how much the story of how everything was prepared by the Chabad shluchim to the Rav who told everyone to make a line as to not overwhelm the hotel personnel.. touches me! It is so amazing how we yidden truly deep down all love each other and step up to the plate when the situation calls for it. As far as the issue with Elal, I personally think that flights on thursday should be AVOIDED, anything past wednesday is too crazy… BUT nothing and no one is perfect. I love to fly Elal if I have to leave Eretz Hakodesh for a good reason and still would choose them over other airlines…. There is much to improve on on so many levels and bezras Hshem we will get there… . Name calling and labeling will not get us there though. I think that the ein tov and the sentiment expressed in this letter is a real good beginning for all of us to incorporate into our life and dealing with others. To see the good does not mean that we are silly. If we really love our fellow Jew like HKBH wants us too, it will be very easy to see the good and dan l’kaf zechus. Shavua Tov

  8. No need to be scared to use the term Chareidim just because of fake negative news that comes out of E’Y. In E’Y the term is proudly used by frum people who are careful with Torah law and follow the guidance of Gedolei Yisroel. It means ‘Chareidim Ledvar Hashem’, (joyful) people who shudder to ensure they properly follow the word of Hashem. The term should be used with pride.

  9. Continuation of my above comment because I missed a point. So Chareidim is not Neturei Karta, it is regular devout frum Chasidim and Yeshiva types of yidden… The term is used with pride.

  10. A few problems I see in this article. 1. An ehrliche Frum Jew should under no circumstances book or fly on any flight after the 1:15PM Elal flight from Newark to Tell Aviv on Thursday afternoon unless it’s a doctor flying for pikuach nefesh where in that case would even have an heter to fly on Shabbos. 2. The people were complaining around 10:30 PM that they wanted to get off the plane well they did not board until 8:30PM(3:30AM Eretz Yisroel time? Which means even if they left @ 8:30 would have landed 1:30PM which is way to close to Shabbos. Therefore those people should have left the airport & spent Shabby in NYC before they even boarded than this problem never would have occurred. I think it’s time for the Gedolim to make a kol koreh on Whats the latest time erliche Frum Jews shot be booking flights for Eretz Yisroel on Thursday or long Bus rides, or what’s the latest time to leave when driving long distance .

  11. leah2330, my relative who flew into E’Y last week on a Tuesday and was able to spend a beautiful shabbos by the kosel for the first time in her life gave me chizuk and brought tears to many eyes in the family. A 70 year old going to tzfas, chevron, and touring E’Y brought such chizuk to us. I’m not going to repeat myself and several other comments regarding the unwise decision to leave NYC Thursday night for international cross-Atlantic travel, as I don’t think there is anything commendable or applaudable about risking mechalal shabbos or going into shabbos in a rushed and stressed fashion. My grandmother once told me something so simple, but often forgotten. That part of the mitzvah of shabbos is entering in it with less stress, less arguing, less fighting, and less regret. I certainly don’t think it’s name calling to say that plans to land on late Erev Shabbos doesn’t inspire me, nor gives me chizuk. The chesed of the Chabad gave me a feeling of chizuk and a feeling that we should all be aiming higher to be like Avraham Avinu. My point is, sometimes chizuk is found is what we would all consider “mundane” (such as the first E’Y visit for an elderly), doesn’t have to be an unwise shabbos tragedy averted.

  12. terrible terrible terrible why in the world is anybody flying after 1 on Thursday afternoon? the previous generation gave up so much for the sake of Shabbat. if this was the first time ever that has happened I would understand it what this is extremely risky and if you really care about you but you would never do it. if you want to make a true Kiddush Hashem never book a flight at that time

    I hope some professional rabbis and writers will publish a Strong’s article how it is forbidden to put yourself in that situation

  13. For all bashing the writer for taking a “risk” while i don’t know the exact details, one thing is certain, there were plenty of Chasuva Rabbanim/Rosh yeshivos on the flight, that had it been a true risk they wouldn’t have traveled.

  14. Gadolhadorah[sic],
    Does any other Airline advertise they cater specially to religious passengers?
    Is any other airline advertised As the Airline Of a Jewish state?
    And Reap those benefits??

  15. To GAON, who pointed out that ” there were plenty of Chasuva Rabbanim/Rosh yeshivos on the flight,” well, guess what? “Chasuva Rabbanim/Rosh yeshivos” are human beings, just like the rest of us, and this incident just goes to show that sometimes they make bad decisions, just like the rest of us non-chashuva people. Who wudda thunk?

  16. Truth…..Correct. No other airlines claims to “accomodate” religious travelers BUT they have to do so within the minor constraints of covering their costs and earning a profit, adhering to the most stringent security protocols which generally do not allow any flexibility at foreign airports to deviate from air traffic control and ground control instructions, return to gates which have already been filled by other aircraft, allow certain passengers to deplane without unloading everyone and re-matching luggage, etc. I’m not sure exactly the sequence of who knew what and when and its even possible the pilot thought he might be able to arrive on time and just wanted to get an expedited take off time while telling passengers he might return to the gate and lose his takeoff priority. El Al can and should do better in communications but we are better off having them, as flaws as they are versus relying entirely on foreign owned commercial carriers.

  17. I don’t generally agree on politics with Gadolhadorah, but your point @10:00 is dead on…
    Everybody made a mistake, learn from it and move on…
    Again to my fellow frum Jews :
    Admit it…. You booked a questionable clise to Shabbos flight.
    Admit it, don’t push it under the rug… Everybody sees it so don’t throw sand in our eyes…. This wasn’t an emergency flight… This letter goes on and on about our grandparents & sacrifice for Shabbos… Well, You didn’t sacrifice anything….
    Great thst you had a wonderful & ballyhhooed Shabbos…
    Now leave El Al the heck alone…

  18. ….. They let you tie up the narrow aisles to make minyans, even if they’re near the galleys and restrooms, even though many poskim allow davening w/o a minyan in flights…. This isn’t the Willy bus… Enough of your letters & bashing… Maybe extrapolate a halacha from boat travel, when one is permitted
    To embark so many and so many days before Shabbos…. I don’t know..
    You goofed up, own it , and move on already

  19. There is no limit to how soon before Shabbos one may board a boat, if one expects to be off it before Shabbos. Otherwise one couldn’t ride the Staten Island Ferry from Wednesday!