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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. Rick

    I have a BIG suggestion for the orthodox jews, when flying, fly! Pray when you're on the ground. Otherwise hitch yourself to an oxen and wagon for the long trip.

    You want protections of Israel but when you receive it you squawk? Can't have it both ways.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
    • Lulu

      Rick, based on your comment I have a question... If a Christian is on an airplane and suddenly there is violent turbulence, should he/she hold his tongue and never say, "Dear God, please watch over this plane and help us to land safely."? Would it be better for that Christian to wait until the plane crashes to say his/her prayer for help?

      March 15, 2011 at 10:30 pm |
  2. jan

    I can't believe the airline apologized to the three loud mouth passengers. This was a blatant attempt by them to set the airline up for a lawsuit. They should of been kicked off the plain and arrested for causing pain and suffering to the rest of the passengers.
    In this day and age, if you can't shut up and not cause a disturbance on a plane, you should be immediately flown to the nearest airport, arrested, fined and refused air travel for 10 years. That should make flying a less scary journey for all.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
  3. EBF

    The airline did not have to apologize. The mne were acting suspious. Prayer is a good thing, but it should be done quietly
    or when you are in a house of worship. Almonst sounds like these three men wanted to be held in suspision. Getting up when told to sit reaching for a bag with a black box....maybe they were just setting the airline up for a lawsuit.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
  4. Zach

    Btw now jews have given us another reason to stereotype them

    March 15, 2011 at 4:32 pm |
  5. mymanao

    So . . . all a terrorist needs to do is dress like an Orthodox Jew and carry one of these boxes as a bomb container and if they can get it through security, they're all set to blow something up. Because of course if they're anything EXCEPT Muslim, they're safe and they can follow their religion wherever they are. Let a Muslim whip out a prayer rug in the aisle of a plane and see what happens.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
    • aubrie

      Touche!

      March 15, 2011 at 5:29 pm |
  6. Dana

    Last week I had black smears that kept popping up all over my shirt and I couldn't figure out where they kept coming from until my husband pointed out that our parish priest kind of overdid the ashes on my forehead! I think we all sometimes tend to think what we do is perfectly routine. But to others it might not be, and there might be totally unintended consequences whether it's a smudgy shirt or nervous passengers. It's best to be mindful of the possibilities, and act accordingly.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
  7. Doc Vestibule

    As a Scotsman, I demand my right to carry a Sgian Dubh onto the plane. If anybody tries to take it away, it's nothing but anti-scottish bigotry.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
  8. Frank

    People of the United States of America and Alaska Air.
    I would be praying outloud to if I hit severe turbulence after take of if it were really rough.Alaska Air needs to send their people on an all expense paid tour of the Hasidic Jewish section of Brooklyn to at least reconize how they dress and their customs.Even a Gentile like me could reconize one.They should add a tour of the Amish Country in PA even though the Amish would not fly but just in case there is a Radical Amish person in AK.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
  9. Zach

    I dont care what your religion is, nobody is expected to know that there is a ritual that involves acts that are very similar to terroristic behavior...AND those 3 should know better than to perform them on a plane! idiots

    March 15, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • brandon

      best post of the day

      March 15, 2011 at 4:41 pm |
  10. RedEye

    I think the crew acted appropriately and the gentlemen in question are the ones who should apologize. Should I tolerate they start praying out loud or doing whatever else they feel like just for the sake of a religion? They should pray in their heads, If their god can't hear them there they have bigger issues. I am not their God so I should not hear them as well.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
  11. Albert

    I am an orthodox Jew, I have traveled many times, to many places. And I believe with a little bit of caution, and some possible some explanation these problems can be completely avoided.
    Avoiding the situation is much better (IMHO) than asserting your "rights" or causing a ruckus.
    1. You can say your prayers quietly. 2. It is permissible to put on the tefillin later (for example when you reach your destination, if the sun has not set yet) 3. If there is a safety requirement then safety does come first, and you can remain seated.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
  12. bugdad

    I would have tasered them first and asked questions later. These guys should be aware of the world they live in and that no religion has the right to ignore common sense.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
  13. David in Seattle

    A flight attendant called in the Chicago police in O'Hare when she eavesdropped while I was on the phone telling my son that United Airlines was a _____ airline because we had been sitting there for hours with repeated nonsensical updates. (They told us that the inbound plane was just about to land. Oops no it wasn't. Then it was. Then it never left the previous stop. Then it did.) The main reason for talking to my son was that he had just returned from his Grandfather's funeral (my father-in-law) and his girlfriend just dumped him (WAB) and I was trying to make him laugh. After abuse from the Chicago police, a manager at the airline said they couldn't keep me off the plane because I had a negative view of United - I was actually a 50K frequent flier, but no more! The point is, flight attendants are poorly trained and power has gone to their heads. Teffilin have no "wires", but black leather straps. If they called the cops on all passengers who go to the bathroom in pairs and take stuff out of the overhead while the seatbelt light is on,1/2 the plane would be empty.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:27 pm |
  14. Mark

    I am a Jew, and I don't believe AA should've apologized. The reason why AA flight attendants did it is because they were concerned for the safety of their passengers, not because they hated Jews.
    Those Orthodox Jews should've warned the flight attendants beforehand, or, better yet, hold off the prayer until they landed.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
  15. Joe

    They were probably just trying to set up the airline for a lawsuite.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
  16. JH

    I'm Jewish and while I'm not Orthodox, I was raised with them so I'm not speaking out of ignorance. Orthodox Jews believe they are above society's rules and are uninterested in the reactions their extremism might cause. No, there's nothing wrong with praying but they also had a public duty to be more sensitive to their surroundings and the climate we live in.
    Nobody is the chosen people when we're all potential targets.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
  17. JB

    This is on the businessmen and the airline acted appropriately. Like the end of the story stated, all that needed to be done was to alert staff about their ritual. Then staff could inform any passengers disturbed by the scene. But religion has nothing to do disobeying air safety rules and getting up during takeout and opening the overheads. Flying is a stressful experience now and from now on. Don't be a jerk and add to the problem.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
  18. lancer

    What if it were 3 muslim men praying aloud and acting bizarre? I guess you Jewish folks would be alright with that???

    March 15, 2011 at 4:26 pm |
    • David in Seattle

      Actaully I would. I would know that they were praying. As for the rest of the bizzare actions - going to the bathroom in pairs and taking out overhead stuff when the light is on .........

      March 15, 2011 at 4:29 pm |
    • Anonymous

      Because Jews do not blow up airplanes. It is shocking how many anti-semites are ranting on this page.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:30 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      Yeah, I wonder whether they would have gotten an apology.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
    • BossManDoty

      If that were 3 Muslims no apology would be needed. If yo objected they would ask you where's your cultural sensitivity? With Islam, "itls all good" ya see?

      March 15, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
    • Cedar Rapids

      'Anonymous – Because Jews do not blow up airplanes. It is shocking how many anti-semites are ranting on this page.'

      You think his comment ranks as anti-semetic? really?
      Surely your comment is stronger in its thinly veiled reference to muslims being terrorists?

      March 15, 2011 at 4:33 pm |
    • lancer

      Antisemite???...bahahaha! Anonomous, first of all I'm Buddhist. I was just making a point before we were blessed with your presence.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:35 pm |
    • Maria

      Agree with Lancer, why in an airplane? why scare other people?, you have the right to not be a jew, I am not an anti-semite, but if I am in a plane anyone doing anything odd, it will scare me to dead, where is the "Common sense ", I do not understand why the airline apologized. The Ortodoxs were wrong. everyhing has its time and its own place

      March 15, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
    • michelle geil

      Lancer, while you say you are not an anti-semite, any sentence that includes "you Jewish folks" and continues in an accusatory or sarcastic tone, belies any argument of goodwill.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:43 pm |
  19. Andy M

    But they confiscate the holy handgrenade??

    March 15, 2011 at 4:25 pm |
    • bugdad

      The real question is......would you let an attack rabbit have the window seat?

      March 15, 2011 at 4:31 pm |
    • Jacob

      They were tackled before they reached three.

      March 15, 2011 at 5:03 pm |
  20. Erica

    After reading many of the comments that have been posted, I feel compelled to add my own thoughts and opinions.

    First, as a conservative Jew, I think it's awful that these three Orthodox Jews disobeyed the security policies of the airline. They should have known better and any other Orthodox Jew will likely admit that it was completely unnecessary. If I had to guess, and to help educate other readers, the three men decided to pray with their tefillin in order to create a closer connection with G-d. The turbulance likely prompted a need to put on tefillin and pray; their way of protecting themselves and other passengers. Unfortunately, their desire to "do what's right" led toa feeling of "what's wrong."

    What's worse is that these three men did not take the time to fully explain what they were doing with the tefillin. Jewish people are taught the tremendous importance of continuous learning. In which case, shame on these three for not educating others on the beauty of Judaism, the purpose and strength in prayer, and the connection made with G-d. How could they not take such an incredible opportunity to share that with others? Although G-d commands the Jewish people not to judge others, I do question this particular situation.

    Moreso, I hold disappointment in the fact that there wasn't a single passenger or flight attendant who didn't know what these men were doing. How sad is it that we live in a great big world with diverse cultures, ethnicities, and backgrounds, and few take the time to learn or appreciate it. To me, the image of a man wrapping tifillin around his arm is just as common and purposeful as a picture of Barack Obama behind a podium, or Justin Beiber behind a microphone. It's something I see all the time, so why is it that other's don't?

    What's even worse is the number of individuals who have submitted comments to this blog/board involving violence. It is disgusting how many times individuals wrote about "jumping those Jews" or "kicking their a$$es." My stomach turns knowing that we live in a time when people are more inclined to "shoot first and ask questions later," putting violence before education, before giving it any thought whatsoever. Is this what people are teaching their children? Are future generations learning to forget culture, forget religion, forget those special and unique elements that makes our country great and our world shine with brilliance?

    This is what 9/11 had done to us. It has created even greater divide as it has brought to bear the qualities that make us standout rather than what unifies us as a whole. Suddenly we are back in high school where the nerds should be picked on while the jocks are elevated to the top. Let us stop here and realize that even the biggest band geek has as much to offer the world as the all-state athlete.

    I thank Alaskan Airlines for protecting its people and taking the proper precautions in keeping its passengers and crew safe in all situations. That should be the foremost thought of any organization. Please know that as a conservative Jew I am touched and honored that you are leading the way, taking the steps needed to learn more about Judaism; and I hope you will extend your learning to many other religions and cultures. Kudos to you and may you continue to build success in all you endeavor. To many of the other commentators, perhaps you can learn from those who are doing the right thing.

    March 15, 2011 at 4:24 pm |
    • One World - Many People

      Thank you.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:28 pm |
    • Shalisa

      I have a degree in Religious Studies and I've only seen a SINGLE image of image of a man wrapping tifillin around his arm. This is not a popular to image for most Americans WHATSOEVER! For a Jew, yes. For most Americans, no!

      March 15, 2011 at 4:36 pm |
    • michelle geil

      Well said, respectful of all sides. Thoughtfulness, respect and dialogue will ultimately win the day.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:37 pm |
    • brandon

      who's going to read that book

      March 15, 2011 at 4:38 pm |
    • sockpuppet

      Erica I agree with you and unfortunately, most people are uneducated and they do not take the time to learn about people who are different from themselves. I would say that there is a huge majority of Americans that would have no idea what this is, because they aren't exposed to it in their daily lives.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:39 pm |
    • Jtau

      I could say the same thing about chinese cultural rituals which get lost to all my western friends. It doesn't mean they're barbarians or philistines – it's just a different culture. I for one, have never seen or heard of such boxes. Then again, I've only been to various places in asia, south america, and africa.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
    • displeased

      "To me, the image of a man wrapping tifillin around his arm is just as common and purposeful as a picture of Barack Obama behind a podium, or Justin Beiber behind a microphone. It's something I see all the time, so why is it that other's don't?" from Erica.

      Erica, the use of a tifillin may be common to you, but I would have no clue what it is. Because you grew up with this culture, you shouldn't assume people are familiar with your practices. Everybody has their own experiences and background. I don't know any Jews and never been to a Jewish ceremony so I would have no idea what these men were doing. And BTW, going to your list, I have no idea who Justin Beiber is and what he looks like behind a microphone, so that's 2 out of 3 on your list I would fail recognizing.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:40 pm |
    • ann

      In some areas such as where I live you never see anyone wearing these boxes nor speaking in Hebrew much less actually know anyone who does. So it is conceivable that they might not have known anything about them. I know my husband would have been mystified if he had witnessed this prayer and the boxes. I have read the old testament and also visited a synagogue as a kid so I know about them. But like I said, most people I know have no contact with people of that religion or if they do they don't know they practice it. They also have probably never been educated about it either. Doesn't mean people should treat others different because of their lack of knowledge, but I can see where it could have scared some people. Especially if they weren't explaining what they were doing at all.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:44 pm |
    • Roisin

      Erica, I wish you blessings. I don't remember – literally – the last time I read anything in response to situations like this that was not the equivalent of a free-for-all. You restore my faith with such a calm and reasoned response. I just had to say something.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • buck cameron

      Erica,
      Thanks, I look to the comments for additional information and perspective. What I usually find is lunacy. However, you really provided a relevantly informed perspective. A golden nugget amidst the dross! Would that other were to learn from your example.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:45 pm |
    • ann

      I would like to mention that I also like your response.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:49 pm |
    • aubrie

      Beautifully written and it made me much more aware of your practices..... my fear now is that some type of terrorist will use this as a "cover" for more sinister things..... that would be so wrong on so many levels, but a distinct possibiltiy in this crazy violent world....

      March 15, 2011 at 4:52 pm |
    • displeased

      Also, you say we live in this great big world full of cultures and backgrounds. You expect us to take the time to learn ALL of them? Would you recognize all the rituals practiced around the world?

      March 15, 2011 at 4:56 pm |
    • Billy

      Thank you for your well written response. You put a lot of heart and thought in to it. I must disagree on the point where you believe at least someone on the plane would know what the men were doing. We do live in a diverse world but you can't expect people to know so much about so many different cultures, religions, etc. As our age of enlightenment continues, more and more people are losing interest in the plethora of religions to chose from as the 'one true religion' and are turning to Atheism, Agnosticism, or another form of non-religion. It's been estimated than approximately 1.3 billion people in the world do not identify themselves with a religion, compared to around 16 million people who practice Judaism. It's because religions are bleeding members that the majority of the airline saw what was occurring as a death ritual instead of someone silently practicing their faith.

      March 15, 2011 at 4:56 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.