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Airline apologizes for plane prayer scare
On Sunday law enforcement met a plane at Los Angeles International Airport after praying passengers triggered security fears.
March 15th, 2011
02:01 PM ET

Airline apologizes for plane prayer scare

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Alaska Airlines has apologized for a weekend incident in which three Orthodox Jewish businessmen triggered security concerns by conducting a prayer ritual on board a flight to Los Angeles.

The men began praying out loud in Hebrew shortly after takeoff on Flight 241 from Mexico City. Flight attendants alerted the flight deck, which then called the tower and alerted law enforcement. When the plane arrived at Los Angeles International Airport, it was met by the FBI, Customs and Border Protection and airport police.

The men were questioned, their bags searched, and it was determined they were not a threat according to the FBI.

"Alaska Airlines embraces the cultural and religious diversity of our passengers and employees. We apologize for the experience these three passengers went through after landing in Los Angeles as well as for any inconvenience to our other customers onboard," Alaska Airlines spokeswoman Bobbie Egan said.

Alaska Airlines said it plans to update its awareness training of Orthodox Jews and is reaching out to the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle for help.

The airline issued the apology after conducting an internal review of Sunday’s incident, and said it wasn’t just the prayers that worried the flight crew.

"Flight attendants observed unusual behavior from three male passengers that continued during the four-hour flight,” Egan said in a statement issued late Monday.

“Out of concern for the safety of all of the passengers on board, the crew erred on the side of caution and authorities were notified. The crew did not realize at the time that the passengers were Orthodox Jews engaging in prayer ritual in Hebrew."

Egan said three specific instances that went beyond the men's prayers appeared to be unusual behavior to the crew:

Flight attendants instructed everyone to stay seated with their seatbelts fastened as the aircraft flew through turbulence shortly after takeoff. The three passengers disregarded repeated requests, however, and stood up several times to retrieve objects from their luggage in the overhead bin that the crew had never seen, including small black boxes fastened with what appeared to be black tape. The crew learned after the plane landed that these were tefillin boxes worn during the prayer ritual.

The men prayed aloud together in a language unfamiliar to the crew while wearing what appeared to be black tape and wires strapped to their forearms and foreheads and wires on their chests. Their actions and behavior made some other travelers and the crew uneasy. The three passengers responded, but provided very little explanation, to a flight attendant’s questions about the tefillin boxes and what they were doing.

Later in the flight, two of the three passengers visited the lavatories together while the third waited in the aisle and continually looked around the cabin and toward the flight deck door. Flight attendants thought he appeared anxious, as if he were standing guard.

During weekday prayers, some Orthodox Jewish men wear teflillin, or phylacteries - black leather straps wrapped around the left arm and around the forehead. The straps are connected to small boxes with tiny scrolls containing Jewish scriptures. Many Orthodox Jewish men also wear a prayer shawl called a tallit under their clothes, with knotted fringes at each of the four corners.

Rabbi Motti Seligson, a spokesman for Chabad-Lubavitch, an Orthodox Jewish movement, explained the ritual further to CNN:

Tefillin are two leather black boxes with sacred parchment inside hand-crafted by a special scribe. The boxes are bound on the arm and head during prayer to spiritually align the mind and heart. I would encourage airlines to sensitize its employees to the salient effect of the tefillin ritual – and would be more than happy to put them in touch with local rabbis who can teach their personnel more about this tradition.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, this issue comes up occasionally. Last year after a similar incident, the ADL and Chabad sent a letter and a flier to all the major airlines explaining teflillin, said Deborah Lauter, ADL’s director of civil rights.

"We understand these prayer items may not be familiar. We gave them the suggestions that they do training about it. We had hoped they would include this in their training," Lauter said.

She said she is sending a letter to Alaska Airlines again to remind them.

Lauter said there is an onus on both parties in such a situation.

“The safety of passengers is paramount, and in this age of heightened security people are on edge. I think it’s understandable why people would have this reaction. There has to be a give and take too with the passengers. If they weren’t cooperating, that’s a different problem than religious sensitivity,” she said.

"Education is a two way street. We hope airlines will include this training with their staffs," Lauter said. “It also wouldn't hurt for passengers who are going to be participating in this ritual to alert the staff ahead of time.”

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Belief • California • Prayer • United States

soundoff (1,457 Responses)
  1. Dave

    Once again, common sense does not prevail. If it were three Muslim guys praying out loud there would be a problem! And really I don't want a bunch of Christian Fundamentalists praying out loud and speaking in tongues either. When I'm on a public airline I really don't want to celebrate your religion with you anymore than I appreciate a baby screaming it's head off the whole flight. Sorry but I generally try not to be offensive in public! And I expect the same from others. It's called civility, it's where the word civilization comes from. You might wanna try it sometime! Unless you wouldn't mind me farting, burping, singing dirty pub songs and talking about how much my balls itch while you are enjoying your peanuts and coke!

    March 15, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
    • Dan

      Dave – I think you were sitting next to me on a flight to LA. Hope that jock itch is feeling better. Oh, and lay off the fried food. My clothes still smell like your digested lunch.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:01 pm |
  2. Jen

    BTW, calling everyone anti semetic is losing any credibility and is actually turning the fair minded against you.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  3. Jason Boyd

    Should never have apologized. It was 3 worshiper's insensitivity to the rest of the plane. They were foolish for their actions post 9/11.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  4. NoBigDeal

    I believe in Religious freedom. That means that you and I are both free to believe, or not believe, as we wish. If anyone attempts to impose their beliefs on me, anywhere, anytime, much less in the caustrophobic confines of a commercial airliner, I will TEACH them politely if possible, but with what ever means necessary, to NEVER do it again.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
  5. Stevelb1

    I prayed on a plane once. I prayed that the fat guy walking down the aisle wasn't heading for the seat right next to me...And it worked!

    March 15, 2011 at 3:50 pm |
    • Dave

      What god do you have? Cause the one I'm using always fails on that point. It's always the fat guy or the crying baby for me!

      March 15, 2011 at 3:59 pm |
  6. Reform Jewboy

    For what it's worth, this ritual would be commonplace on El Al airlines, particularly during turbulence. I suspect that these particular Orthodox Jews did not feel like explaining themselves to mere Goyim. Praying out loud on a plane during turbulence is excusable. Refusing to explain your actions, and ignoring the flight crew, is not. This does not mean that all Orthodox Jews are insensitive and insular. Some can be quite engaging, and happy to share the particulars of their religion with others. That said, it's also silly for flight crews not to understand other cultures and religions. All it would take would be a one hour video, with short clips: Jewish person praying, Catholic person praying, Mormon praying, etc.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
    • Stevelb1

      I get not knowing what tefilin is. Not a lot of goyim and for that matter not a lot of Jews have seen them before.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
    • Jen

      "mere goyen" who is the racist?

      March 15, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
    • Dave

      And what if Wiccans wanted to dance naked under the moon on the plane? Would that be okay? As long as the seat belt signs were off of course.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • Dan

      Ah, Jen, me thinks Reform Jewboy is being sarcastic here and actually making fun of Orthodox Jews. You see, just like there are Christians of all varieties – e.g., Catholics, Pentecostals, lapse Christians, and fundamentalists - there are Jews of all varieties. The majority of Jews are what are called Conservative or Reform. They are fully assimilated and are as likely to marry non-jews as they are other jews. They don't observe Kosher laws or other orthodoxy. Orthodox Jews on the other hand, are very religious, similar to fundamentalist Christians and Muslims. They are true believers and follow closely all of the religious laws. They wear skullcaps and traditional clothing. They pray all the time and use tefillin. Like most religious fundamentalists they are fairly insular and engage in in-group out-group dynamics. Thankfully they don't proselytize, except to other Jews. Like many fundamentalists they see the world in black and white terms and in their universe you're either a Jew or a non-Jew (Goyim). The term Goyim is not in itself insulting. it's just descriptive. It'e the equivalent of saying someone is a non-Christian or a non-Muslim. My guess is that Reform Jewboy thinks the Orthodox are lame and he is poking fun at the way they see the world.

      BTW – all the subtle insults against Jews are pretty lame. If I had brick for every time a non-jew did something stupid or obnoxious I've have built the Empire State Building three times already. Doesn't make me think all Christians or non-Jews are stupid and obnoxious. Enough with the bigotry already.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:16 pm |
  7. Rob

    How about performing the ritual BEFORE OR AFTER you get on the plane?

    March 15, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
  8. why

    There's no way that the average American, even someone who deals with mainstream jews on a regular basis, would know what these people were doing. Maybe the average newyorker or bocaratonian or clevelander (you know, places with high jew counts) might know, but this does not include 99.999% of the US populaiton.

    Simply no excuse.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
  9. Bobby

    This is such a kiss ass double standard. You guys could have been subtle about it. If they were Muslims you wouldn't hear the end of it and prayer said aloud on planes would be put on the chopping block and debated in the Senate for possible termination. asap!! I can't wait until 3 Arab guys try this same stunt. You can tell who owns the American media. You guys are such cowards and so are the people who read this who choose to ignore the obvious.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
  10. bluedog47

    What if 3 muslims were praying on plane outloud and disobeying the flight attendants instructions? It doesnt matter what religion you are there are rules, obide by them or face consequences.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
    • One World - Many People

      The Muslims would not have received an apology and probably would have spent the night in jail. 10 years ago they would have been sent to Guantanamo.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:52 pm |
  11. TBRays Fan

    I totally believe in all religions, but can also understand the precaution to it. Now that the Jews are speaking out that they have this right, I can only imagine the Taliban using this to their advantage and posing as Jews to put bombs in the boxes and allow black tape on their bodies which will contain explosives. Sorry guys, but I think the same rules should apply to everyone for our own safety as, sadly it has to be done.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:48 pm |
  12. Not Funny

    Why the hell do people feel the need to pray in a crazy manner in cramped places? Can't they modify their methods to suit the environment they are in?

    March 15, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
    • Good 'ol US of a

      absolutely not. they have no respect for peoples space.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
  13. Frank

    Let's be real. With all the crap going on in the world the choice to pray aloud on a plane was irresponsible. It could have been others in disguise. Point is no one needs to go through that type of tension. Do it before or after the plane and in private. Respect is a two way street.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
    • cheiw

      youre right frank. totally correct.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
  14. speak not

    watch the movie "holy rollers" – tefellin used to smuggle drugs...

    March 15, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
  15. I thought you were arabic, sorry

    I suppose if they had turned out to be Islamic prayers the airlines would have been justified in their response?

    Oh? Your Jewish? Funny, you don't look Jewish. So Sorry.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:47 pm |
  16. worldruler

    after reading this story, where the result turned out exactly backwards of how it should have, the only real question is

    who really rules the world?

    March 15, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
  17. joe

    This could have easily been avoided if the people doing the praying had show the least bit of courtesy or compassion to their fellow travelers by alerting and explaing before hand. I am shocked it went over as smoothly as it did. You cannot be so naive that you say why people might not understand what is going on.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
    • One World

      Why?

      Do you explain to people why you read the bible, or the sports page?

      March 15, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
    • sami

      What do you mean? Make an announcement that "I am going to pray now?"

      March 15, 2011 at 3:54 pm |
  18. John Cozzoli

    Not sure why the airline is apologizing. I would have responded the same way.

    March 15, 2011 at 3:45 pm |
    • jake

      keep your religious beliefs to yourself. if you have a situation with your god then deal with it in your own home. stay out of my space.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:58 pm |
  19. Darkguardian1314

    If I was about to do something like the Rabbis, I would at least tell the stewardess before I do it. It's very understandable what happened on "take off". Why not in the lobby of the airport? This is truly an International community with hundreds of religions and rituals practiced daily. Is Alaska Airlines going to train their staff on every religion? This isn't Star Trek: Next Generation. There needs to be tolerance on both sides. Ask yourself, what would happen if I do this and will it be misinterpreted?

    March 15, 2011 at 3:44 pm |
    • Rob

      EXACTLY! How about performing the ritual BEFORE OR AFTER you get on the plane?

      March 15, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
    • Dan

      DG – Agree with you that these guys were lame for not letting the flight attendance know what they were doing.
      Rob – I don't know this for sure, but I believe they are commanded by God (in their minds at least) to pray at certain times of the day, therefore they would need to do so on the plane. I believe they have to face east towards Jerusalem when they do pray.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:22 pm |
  20. Mike

    No respect given... I don't think the airline should apologize! I also don't think these 3 knew they were causing a stir and were probably looking to sue and get some money! Oh yes, I went there!

    March 15, 2011 at 3:43 pm |
    • dlt

      You are a bigoted ignoramus.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:49 pm |
    • Joe

      Religion has no place in modern society.

      March 15, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
    • andyounailedit

      and you nailed it

      March 15, 2011 at 3:51 pm |
    • Phil

      Exactly... We cannot be considered ignorant of others cultures...they could have waited until they landed...doing rituals on a plane would rattle the bejesus out of me... Those ADL zealots leave a bad taste in my mouth...

      March 15, 2011 at 3:55 pm |
    • Dan

      Mike = Lame

      Where in the article did it mention that these men were suing for money?

      March 15, 2011 at 4:20 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.