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On a wing and a prayer: Jewish flyers take off
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On a wing and a prayer: Jewish flyers take off

Sharing his passion, Jersey pilot leads ‘Jews in Aviation’

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Ready for takeoff: Matthew Axelrod, cantor, pilot, flight instructor, and a member of Jews in Aviation, said he now sees that flying is “a fine complement to my kavana.” Photos by Johanna Ginsberg
Ready for takeoff: Matthew Axelrod, cantor, pilot, flight instructor, and a member of Jews in Aviation, said he now sees that flying is “a fine complement to my kavana.” Photos by Johanna Ginsberg

Matthew Axelrod never thought about combining his enthusiasm for flying with his commitment to Judaism — until he met Howard Cooper.

Axelrod, a certified pilot and flight instructor, also happens to be cantor of Conservative Congregation Beth Israel in Scotch Plains.

Cooper, a Jewish educator who recently served as interim director of education at Congregation B’nai Israel in Basking Ridge, is also a pilot. And in 2009, he founded Jews in Aviation together with commercial pilot and Toronto resident Matthew Ritter, who works for Air Canada.

Axelrod was thrilled to hear about the group. “I always treated flying as my personal hobby and passion — something separate from the work that I do at shul,” he told NJJN. “Now I see that it’s really a fine complement to my kavana (personal motivation and intention) while leading prayers.”

Supporting that connection for him is Jews in Aviation, mostly an on-line forum for Jews who are pilots, work in related industries, or just have an interest in flying.

“I don’t want to say God called me to do this; it’s not a spiritual calling,” said Cooper, referring to flying. “It’s more of a passion, an intellectual calling.”

‘Gift of creation’

Watching Cooper at an airport in Morristown in early November, though, a passenger could see that it was more than a mere intellectual endeavor.

One plan for this flight had already been scuttled by clouds and fog, yielding a very disappointed Cooper. On this day, however, as he made his way to the aircraft, he had an extra bounce in his step and a grin on his face. It was obvious he was eager to show a visitor around and get in the air. “It’s a gorgeous day for flying,” he said, noting the crisp air and the leaves at the height of their color.

Inside the two-seater Diamond Aircraft DA20, Cooper ran through his safety checklists, checked the instrument panel, turned on the GPS, put on his headsets, lowered the airplane hood. The last page of the checklist is one you don’t often find in cockpits: a prayer for pilots that Cooper wrote himself and had translated into Hebrew.

He relishes sharing his excitement about flying —– it’s one of the reasons he founded JIA.

“That’s what Jews do,” he said, referring to the idea of creating communities. “There are organizations for Jewish hikers, bowlers, lawyers, doctors, police officers, and motorcycle riders.”

Ritter’s interest in the organization is professional — he wanted to give his co-religionists a way to find mentors in the field. Although there are plenty of Jews with a pilot’s license, he said in a prepared statement, “Jews in the Diaspora are not well represented in commercial aviation.”

Jews in Aviation is already having an unintended impact: sensitizing the industry to the needs of observant Jews.

When the organization was contacted by an observant Jew who trained and passed his certification to work as an air traffic controller but could not get a job because of his inability to work on Shabbat, Cooper wrote a letter to Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) and spoke to his staff.

“Where this will go I have no idea, but we raised an issue,” said Cooper. “My take on it is the NYPD has figured it out; they have shomer Shabbat policemen. How is it they were able to figure it out, but the [Federation Aviation Administration] cannot?”

Jews in Aviation is also helping people like Axelrod broaden their perspectives. “I think the group’s greatest accomplishment would be to make other ‘flying Jews’ aware of the same thing, that we don’t need to restrict our Judaism to the synagogue, but rather make it a part of everything we do,” he said.

So far, JIA has attracted about 150 members, mostly from the United States, Canada, and Israel. Members don’t have to be pilots — they come from a variety of areas in aviation, or are just interested in the field. Joining Cooper and Ritter in running the organization is Israeli webmaster Yigal Merav.

Over Memorial Day Weekend, the group will have its first “fly-in,” or gathering at a small airport in Monticello, NY.

On that flight in early November, Cooper radioed the tower and fired up the propeller. After a brief taxi down the runway, we were airborne. The scenery was dazzling, dizzying, even inspiring as we headed over lakes and trees for a full foliage tour over northwest New Jersey.

And while Cooper hasn’t quite converted another Jew to his calling, he did afford his passenger some vivid insight into the awe of flying.

As Axelrod put it, “Much of our liturgy focuses on praising God for the gift of creation — and what better way to appreciate this gift than by viewing it in such an all-encompassing way. It lets us really see things in a new way.”

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