Haredi airline passengers are being advised to hang a new type of mehitza – a halachic barrier to separate the sexes – around the top of their airplane seats, to shield their eyes from immodest neighbors and in-flight movies.
The Rabbinical Council for Public Transportation, which is also representing the haredi community on the issue of gender-segregated “mehadrin” buses, is now placing advertisements in haredi newspapers encouraging the community to purchase the traveler mehitzas.
The new mehitzas, made of white nylon, stick onto the fabric of the airplane chair using Velcro and can be arranged to make a protective “shield.” The mehitza goes around the head and is mostly in front of the passenger’s face, protruding only a little to the sides. Its designer, who asked that his name not be published, declined to share pictures and his design details, but said the mehitzas were “airy” and did not bother anybody.
“They’re very nice,” said Rabbi Shimon Stern, spokesman for the Rabbinic Council for Public Transportation. “Very cute. It’s very practical.”
The mehitzas are designed to be portable and fit into a small box, which passengers can bring on the plane.
The airplane mehitzas come in the wake of other recent steps by the haredi community to avoid immodesty, such as the mehadrin bus lines and separate-sex sidewalks in Jerusalem’s Geula neighborhood.
Stern said the main reason for the latest recommendation was to enable haredi passengers to block out in-flight movies. Television sets are banned in haredi communities, and movies are forbidden. In aircraft with large movie screens, it is difficult to avoid watching the films.
Stern said that before the issue of the new mehitza was raised, the council had been in talks with El Al Airlines to create seating areas with no movies, but the results had been unsatisfactory. The council is also publishing a list of flights that do not show films.
A favorite airline is United Airlines, which had to drop its in-flight movies for financial reasons.
Separating haredi passengers from their “immodestly dressed” neighbors is another concern. The mehitza is only partial, but Stern said stewardesses were usually happy to arrange seat-swaps.
Stern said the mehitzas were also there to provide passengers with a private space to pray and study Torah.
“You can daven
, you can learn,” he said, “It gives you privacy.”
The man who designed the mehitzas on order from the council said they had been used thousands of times and that he had received only positive reactions from customers. According to him, the airplane crew on one flight even asked one of his clients for his mehitza so they could use it for future passengers.
But the mehitzas are still unknown to the larger haredi public. Despite the ad campaign in newspapers, they are only available privately from one source – the designer, who charges only a nominal sum for their use. Passengers can even return the items and get their money back when they return to Israel.
A travel agent in Bnei Brak said she knew of only one client who had mentioned the mehitzas. None of the staff at another travel agency in a haredi neighborhood had even heard of them.
An El Al spokeswoman said that none of the personnel with whom she was in contact were aware of them.
Haredi journalist Mordechai Plaut said he knew that there had been an initiative to help Orthodox passengers avoid in-flight movies, but that he had not heard of the mehitzas.
They are not “in,” acknowledged Stern.
But a rabbi in the community, who also requested anonymity, said that it was only a matter of time before they caught on.
“The whole machine will go into it,” he said, referring to the council’s educational arm, which uses newspaper articles, speeches and posters to reach the community.
The Rabbinical Council for Public Transportation is backed by some of the most senior rabbis – including Rabbi Yosef Sholom Elyashiv, 99, one of the leading halachic authorities in the haredi world – according to haredi observers who say the council’s recommendations are widely respected.
Einat Hurvitz, the legal adviser to the Reform movement’s Israel
Religious Action Center who is leading the case against mehadrin buses
in the High Court of Justice, said the individual mehitzas were a step
in the right direction.
“If it’s not something that is bothering other people, then it is freedom of religion,” she said.
However, she added that it was another example of the extremist direction that haredim were taking.