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
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
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 Jewish
Fox said tefillin is based on God's commandment in Deuteronomy 6:5-8:
“And thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.
“And these words, which I command thee this day, shall be in thine heart:
“And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.
“And thou shalt bind them for a sign upon thine hand, and they shall be as frontlets between thy eyes.”
Fox said for generations, Jewish men have been required to place one box on their head and tie the other one on their arm, wrapping them on with slender straps each weekday morning as they say their morning prayers, typically in Hebrew.
Fox told me the significance of the tefillin ritual is that it serves as a physical reminder of a person's loving relationship with God.
I hope The Oklahoman has helped educate readers on some of the more obscure or lesser-known traditions observed by different faith communities. I know I have learned a lot about other faith traditions, besides my own Christian faith, plus I've discovered much more about my own faith community as well.
As for the rest of the story, Alaska Airlines apologized to the men who conducted the prayer ritual for their experience after landing. The airline also apologized for any inconvenience the experience caused other passengers. The airline, in a statement made by spokeswoman Bobbie Egan, said it plans to update its awareness training on Orthodox Jews.
A spokeswoman for the Anti-Defamation League said this issue comes up occasionally. She said a similar incident last year resulted in the league and Chabad-Lubavitch, an Orthodox Jewish movement, sending a letter and a flier to major airlines explaining tefillin.
CNN reported that members of the flight crew said they grew concerned when the men got up from their seats and retrieved the black boxes from overhead compartments after passengers were asked to stay buckled in their seats, then conducted the ritual.
Deborah Lauter, the Anti-
“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,” Lauter told CNN.
“Education is a two-way street. We hope airlines will include this training with their staffs. It also wouldn't hurt for passengers who are going to be participating in this ritual to alert the staff ahead of time.”