Little-known Jewish ritual causes flight concern

The Oklahoman's religion editor, Carla Hinton, writes about how a little-known Jewish prayer ritual called tefillin recently caused an airplane flight crew to issue a security alert.
BY CARLA HINTON chinton@opubco.com Published: March 26, 2011

When I'm on an airplane, I'm busy praying that I make it to my next destination alive and in one piece, and counting my blessings that my perpetually junky purse made it through security without me having to dump everything out.

These days, in the aftermath of 9/11, many people are very concerned and suspicious about what other passengers may be doing on airplanes, particularly when it comes to religion.

So I wasn't surprised to learn that a prayer ritual caused quite a stir on a flight during the March 13 weekend.

Men participating in the Orthodox Jewish prayer tradition of tefillin caused a security alert to be issued during an Alaska Airlines flight from Mexico City to Los Angeles, according to a recent report from The Associated Press.

At first I heard sketchy bits of information about the ritual — men praying aloud in a non-English language and strapping small boxes to their bodies with what appeared to be tape or wires. I immediately knew what it was, but I also knew that most non-Jews don't know much about the tefillin prayer ritual because it isn't one of the major Jewish holidays the media regularly reports about.

The Associated Press reported that the flight crew on Alaska Airlines Flight 241 grew alarmed when three Mexican men began conducting a ritual tying leather straps and small wooden boxes to their bodies. The crew alerted the cockpit, which subsequently was placed on a security lockdown for the rest of the flight. FBI and custom agents plus police and fire trucks met the plane at the gate at Los Angeles International Airport, and the men conducting the ritual were escorted off.

They were released without being arrested, and airline officials later learned from law enforcement that the men were performing the ritual of tefillin.

I learned about tefillin in 2008 and wrote a story about it in The Oklahoman.

At that time, Emanuel Synagogue, 900 NW 47, participated in an international program called World Wide Wrap Day to educate the Oklahoma City congregation about the custom of tefillin. The synagogue's rabbi at that time, Rabbi Russell Fox, said he hoped to encourage more congregation members to recommit to the practice.

According to Jewishvirtuallibrary.org, tefillin are two small black boxes with black straps attached to them. Fox told me the boxes contain tiny parchment scrolls with Scriptures from Exodus and Deuteronomy written on them, including the verse on which the custom is based.

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