El Al promised to refrain from flying on Shabbat while rabbinic leaders removed a boycott threat against the national carrier in an agreement signed between the two Friday.
Saturday night, El Al CEO Haim Romano visited the spiritual heavyweights of Bnei Brak - Rabbis Nissim Karelitz, Aharon Leib Steinman, Shmuel Halevi Vosner, Michel Yehuda Lefkovitz and Haim Kanyevsky - to personally present them with a copy of the signed agreement.
El Al's management acquiesced to a demand by religious leaders to give Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar the final say on emergency flights on Shabbat.
El Al maintained in the agreement that it is and has been bound by a cabinet decision dating back to August 1982 that kept El Al out of the sky on Shabbat even though the carrier was privatized over a year ago. According to the new agreement, Amar is responsible for determining whether a specific case warrants the desecration of the Shabbat. According to Jewish law, desecration of Shabbat is permitted to save lives.
In return for the El Al undertaking, rabbinic authorities of all walks of Orthodox Jewish life - from religious Zionists to Sephardim to Hassidim to Lithuanians - agreed to lift a boycott threat leveled at El Al for over a month. Lifting of the boycott and the unequivocal rabbinic support for the agreement is likely to encourage religious fliers to prefer El Al to other airlines.
Attorney Ya'acov Weinroth represented the haredim while two lawyers from the office of Yigal Arnon, Amnon Lorch and Boaz Fayil represented El Al. According to the agreement, if El Al flies again on Shabbat without the permission of Amar, all resulting cancellation fees will be covered by El Al, but this money will be transferred to a fund for use to pay for drugs not presently covered by the state-fundedbasket of medicines. This particular detail in the agreement was the personal request of Rabbi Ya'acov Aryeh Alter, the Gerrer Rebbe. Those cancelling a $500 flight, for example, would receive $400 back, with the remaining $100 going to the fund.
Aryeh Frankel, of Gal Advertising, a haredi ad agency, said Saturday night that El Al was supplying a service to customers that were responsible for between 18% and 22% of El Al's revenues.
"El Al offers services to the haredi market that no other airline can offer, including special food, entertainment and seating arrangements," said Frankel.
Frankel was referring to "ALAS" an abbreviation for "area without movies" [ezor lelo sratim] which is offered on El Al's 777 planes. On these planes El Al offers special haredi movies directed and produced by a Gerrer Hassid named Moshe Levi who runs Chalom Film Productions, which are broadcast on personal movie screens and a special haredi music channel.
El Al also provides special seating arrangements on all its planes that enables separation of men and women. In addition, all passengers eat kosher food.
"You won't ever have a situation on an El Al plane where one passenger is eating a Glatt Kosher dinner while the guy next to him is eating a 100% bona fide pork delicacy," said Frankel.
The crisis in relations between El Al and its religious constituency flared over a month ago when the national carrier launched 18 Shabbat flights - some of them code shared - to make up for a backlog created by a general strike that paralyzed Ben-Gurion Airport for several days.
El Al claimed at the time that it was forced to operate the Shabbat flights to rescue stranded flyers all over the world who could not reach Israel due to the strike.
However, haredi rabbis who were forewarned that El Al was planning to operate the Shabbat flights said that the act would be seen as a breach of an unwritten agreement between the sides that El Al would do everything in its power to refrain from desecrating Shabbat. El Al did not heed the warnings of the rabbis.
In response, the haredi world's most respected spiritual leaders, such as Kanyevsky and Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, called on the faithful to cancel their flights even if the move meant economic loss. Hundreds cancelled and thousands began planning future trips on competing airlines.