No one happy after Shabbat diverts El Al flight to Athens

An El Al plane at Ben Gurion International Airport, Aug. 5, 2013. (Moshe Shai/Flash90)

JERUSALEM (JTA) — An El Al plane bound for Israel that was delayed from taking off in New York was diverted to Athens on Friday to allow Sabbath-observant passengers to disembark.

That’s what we know for sure. What happened on the plane? That’s another story.

The flight, which had been scheduled to leave John F. Kennedy Airport at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, took off more than five hours late. Bad weather had delayed the arrival of the crew by at least a couple of hours, and then prevented the departure of hundreds of planes. The plane required de-icing more than once as it waited in line to leave.

By 11:30 p.m., dozens of passengers on the plane demanded to be allowed to disembark in New York, fearing they would still be airborne after Shabbat began. The passengers were told to take their seats so the plane could return to the gate and they could disembark, but instead the plane took off.

Here is where the stories diverge.

Some passengers on social media posts accused the religious Jewish passengers of being physically and verbally abusive during the flight when they realized that they would not land in Israel in time for Shabbat. (Religious law forbids motorized travel during the 25 hours the Sabbath.)

Others said the El Al flight attendants withheld information and then service to the religious passengers during the flight, and did not tell them until several hours later that the plane would land in Athens.

Ben Chafetz, director of Client Services for, said he was among those who were asked to leave the plane, even if it meant losing his ticket.

“Four hours into the flight the Captain announced that because of the ‘haredim’ the plane would stop in Athens,” Chafetz wrote, using the word for fervently religious Jews. “At which point, all the people who want to get off for Shabbos can get off the plane first, and then (and here is the kicker), all the people who want to continue to Israel will also have to get off the plane and go on a different plane from IsraAir to go to Israel.

“What a shame … I wish El Al had announced the truth. We were stopping in Athens because El Al made a series of bad calls, and once they landed they could not depart on Shabbos which is why they needed an non El Al plane to continue to Israel on Shabbos.” The national carrier is not allowed to fly on Shabbat.

The decision to land in Athens angered both Orthodox and non-Orthodox passengers, for different reasons.

“To be very clear, no one was angry at the stewardesses; everyone understood that they did not make the decisions,” Chafetz wrote. “We were requesting to speak to the pilot or someone who can speak for the pilot. Again, there was [sic] no attempts to break into the cockpit, there were no physical altercations. Yes, there were some raised voices, but most of the time (I have the videos to prove it), it was secular Israeli passengers who came to yell at the passengers who were concerned about Shabbos that we were ruining their weekend.”

Passenger Roni Meital told a different story in a post on Facebook.

“After 24 hours to reach Israel, I am broken, broken mainly because of the lack of respect of people who are observant, who observe tradition and Shabbat, who took this issue a step too far,” Meital wrote.

Meital thanked the flight crew for its patience and tolerance despite the aggressiveness of some of the passengers. She wrote that “after six hours of flying, I suddenly heard screaming and saw a flight attendant crying after she was hit, pushed, amid threats they would break open the door to the cockpit.”

She also wrote: “I found myself standing and [physically] protecting flight attendants who were crying and who just wanted to catch their breath after the [violent] behavior toward them.”

Meital called on others to share her post.

Yehuda Shlezinger, religious affairs reporter for the Yisrael Hayom newspaper, was on the flight and said reports of the behavior of the religious passengers were exaggerated.

“I must confess, when I opened the news sites Saturday night and saw the crazy headlines about ‘bad’ haredim who ‘pushed flight attendants and threatened to break into the cockpit,’ I was livid,” he wrote. “Thousands of likes, hundreds of shares, tons of venom on social media, and the news was completely fake. I double-checked the boarding pass in my pocket to make sure we were talking about the same flight.”

Chafetz went on to describe the beauty of the Shabbat spent in the hotel literally across the street from the airport with meals provided by the local Chabad.

“Hasidim sat and schmoozed with Zionists, Modox [Modern Orthodox] sat with black hats … I only use these labels so you can visualize the seating, but there were no labels at this seuda [meal]; we sat in true achdus [unity],” he wrote.

El Al issued a statement saying that the extreme weather in New York caused numerous cancellations and delays for hundreds of flights, including its own that departed for Israel on Thursday evening.

“Despite the cancellation of many flights, we succeeded in releasing Flight 002 from New York for our passengers, including an intermediate stop in Athens,” the airline said. “El Al arranged onward flights to Israel that day for all passengers. Passengers who preferred to remain in Athens for Shabbat were cared for by company representatives, and El Al will return them to Israel after Shabbat is over.

“We apologize for any discomfort caused to our customers, but as said we preferred to have the flight leave New York the same day.”

Arutz Sheva, meanwhile, reported that the chief Sephardic rabbi of Israel, Yitzhak Yosef, gave permission for another delayed El Al flight from New York to land on Friday afternoon after the start of Shabbat. Yosef invoked an exception that says Shabbat may be violated in order to save a life; a passenger on the flight was said to be seriously ill.