In a news cycle that included reports of rising European anti-Semitism and the president’s lament about a lack of progress in the Mideast, the most e-mailed Jewish story was about a US Airways jet that made an unscheduled stop after a teenage passenger began wrapping himself in tefillin.
At first, the story of Calev Leibowitz and his ominous black straps promised to be the outrage that kept on giving. Various commentators wanted to load a lot of baggage on this diverted flight, from denigration of the Transportation Safety Administration, to criticism of the teen for whipping out his phylacteries, to loud calls to not let “political correctness” stand in the way of racial profiling. Everyone wanted in on the blame game.
But at some point the media and even your grandparents in Florida realized this: The authorities had acted reasonably under the circumstances. The flight attendant saw a passenger do something unusual. The pilot, undoubtedly remembering the blunder that allowed the Underwear Bomber to get frighteningly close to downing a jet, glided into Philadelphia. And the police, taking no chances, briefly handcuffed the boy and quickly released him when he patiently explained the ritual. “It was unfamiliarity that caused this,” said a police spokesman. And even religious observers had to agree. As a hasidic politician told The New York Times, if “I am the passenger next to him and see someone strapping, I would panic too.”
Nevertheless, there are lessons to be learned from the Tefillin Incident. Security officials must continue to educate all airport and airline staff about religious rituals, as they did last year when Orthodox authorities approached them about the worshipers who would be carrying the lulav and etrog during Sukkot. Those who feel the need to pray on airplanes — whether it is to stand to recite the Shemoneh Esrei or lay tefillin — may want to schedule the act into another part of their travel day.
Finally, the TSA must do a better job at assuring us that their priorities are straight and allay suspicions that the many indignities modern air travelers endure aren’t actually making us safer.