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Tefillin Grounds an Airplane in Philly, and Makes Headlines

January 28, 2010 By:
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If there's any upshot at all to the misunderstanding that grounded a small aircraft last week in Philadelphia -- and that most likely scared the wits out of two Jewish teenagers -- it's that the general public might now know a bit more about tefillin.

A 17-year-old Orthodox Jew donned his phylacteries to recite morning prayers during a Jan. 21 flight from New York's LaGuardia Airport bound for Louisville, Ky.

Unfamiliar with the prayer boxes -- and fearful that they could be a wired bomb -- the captain decided to notify federal authorities of a disruptive passenger and land the plane in Philadelphia, according to FBI Special Agent J.J. Klaver, a local field officer.

Within minutes, headlines on local and national news sites reported the "tefillin" incident as the media scrambled to find out exactly what they might be. (Tefillin are a set of small leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Bible, with leather straps used to wrap around one arm and the forehead. They are worn during weekday morning prayers, though can be put on later in the day, as long as it's before sunset.)

The plane landed at Philadelphia International Airport at a little before 9 a.m., and was searched by the Transportation Security Administration and the Philadelphia Police Department. Caleb Liebowitz and his 16-year-old sister Dahlia -- from White Plains, N.Y. -- were interviewed by FBI agents, though they were never actually put into custody, according to Klaver.

Klaver stressed that the incident was a misunderstanding, and that the passenger had done nothing illegal.

He said that "there is no restriction against religious practices on the aircraft as long as you are not interfering with the flight crew."

The plane was operated by Chautauqua Airlines, an affiliate of U.S. Airways.

The flight had a total of 15 passengers on it.

According to a statement by Republic Airlines, which owns Chautauqua Airlines, "When our crew tried to discuss the issue with the passenger, they did not receive a clear response."

The airline said that "while we always regret any inconvenience to our passengers, safety and security must remain our top priority. In this case, making an unplanned stop in Philadelphia was determined to be in the best interest of our customers and our crew."

'Such a Myopic World'

Glen Liebowitz, the father of the two teenagers, told The Philadelphia Inquirer that he believed that federal marshals approached the situation far too aggressively. The brother and sister were flying to visit their grandmother in Kentucky.

"Adults have to recognize that when you're dealing with children, you have to be gentle," Liebowitz told the Inquirer.

Rabbi Solomon Isaacson of Congregation Beth Solomon Kollel and Community Center in Northeast Philadelphia said that he understood how there could have been initial confusion; still, he said that he couldn't fathom why the matter took at least two hours to clear up.

"With what's been going on lately, I can understand how people would be scared of something they don't know. Obviously, they had no idea what this was. They saw a guy with a black box, and they are thinking that he could be an individual who is willing to sacrifice his life," said Isaacson.

Once it was clear that they weren't dealing with a terrorist, he said, "that should have been the beginning of the end of it."

Rabbi Jay Stein, president of the Vaad: Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia, said that it's a sad commentary on the state of the world that people have become so paranoid.

He also noted that the misunderstanding shows how little Americans know about the religious practices of other faiths.

"We live in such a myopic world that people just don't know what other people's practices are," said Stein, the religious leader of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley.

On the other hand, he said that fear of the unknown is certainly understandable.

"People are living in a crazy world, where people are doing crazy things," said the rabbi. "If you see somebody doing something that is out of the ordinary, of course you are going to be concerned. I would always prefer people to be more cautious than less cautious."

In the aftermath of the incident, Agudath Israel of America said that it would start circulating a brochure to airlines detailing the customs of observant Jews.

In a statement last week, the group said that it has worked closely with the Transportation Security Administration -- an arm of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security -- to "sensitize the agency to the various religious objects and practices of Orthodox Jews," and to reach out to domestic and international airlines. 

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