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Phylactery phobia: Tefillin incident grounds airplane

Wrapped in a dilemma: Tefillin launched a scare on a Louisville-bound flight from New York when a Jewish teenager took out a set to pray. (AngerBoy / Creative Commons)

Wrapped in a dilemma: Tefillin launched a scare on a Louisville-bound flight from New York when a Jewish teenager took out a set to pray. (AngerBoy / Creative Commons)

PHILADELPHIA (Jewish Exponent) — If there’s any upshot to the misunderstanding that grounded a small aircraft last week in Philadelphia — and 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 prayer 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 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 reporters scrambled to find out exactly what tefillin 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 the left arm and the forehead. They are worn by observant Jews during weekday morning prayers.)

The plane landed at Philadelphia International Airport at approximately 8:50 a.m. and was searched by the Transportation Security Administration and the Philadelphia Police Department.

FBI agents interviewed the boy, Caleb Liebowitz, and his 16-year-old sister, Dahlia, from White Plains, N.Y., but they were never actually in custody, according to Klaver.

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

“There is no restriction against religious practices on the aircraft as long as you not interfering with the flight crew,” he said.

The plane was operated by Chautauqua Airlines, an affiliate of US Airways. The flight had a total of 15 passengers.

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 airlines 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.”

Glen Liebowitz, the father of the two teens, told the Philadelphia Inquirer that federal marshals approached the situation far too aggressively. The teens reportedly 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 he understood the initial confusion, but could not 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," Isaacson said. "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.”

Once it became 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: The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia, said it’s a sad commentary on the state of the world that people have become so paranoid. He also said the misunderstanding shows how little Americans know about 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.

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

“People are living in a crazy world where people are doing crazy things,” the rabbi said. “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 it would make more widely available to airlines a brochure it had created detailing Orthodox customs, the JTA reported.

In a statement last week, the fervently Orthodox group said 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 American and foreign airlines.

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