The saga of El Al 002

The good, the bad and even a mikveh

The first of Israel's El Al Airlines order of 16 Boeing 787 Dreamliner jets, lands at Ben Gurion International Airport, near Tel Aviv, Israel August 23, 2017 (photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
The first of Israel's El Al Airlines order of 16 Boeing 787 Dreamliner jets, lands at Ben Gurion International Airport, near Tel Aviv, Israel August 23, 2017
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
It’s hard to say which drama garnished more interest in the last few days. The ups and downs of Bibi’s tittering coalition or the odyssey of the El Al flight diverted to Athens because of Shabbat. Deep down, many thought Netanyahu would somehow find a way to keep the coalition alive, which he did. It was the story of the El Al flight that touched some of our deepest divides and anxieties.
“It’s those haredim again,” was the initial reaction from some. With no actual corroboration or any level of journalist professionalism, Israeli media unleashed another anti-haredi tirade. Relying on unsubstantiated Facebook posts and no independent verification, the media collectively accused the religious Jews of “violent behavior.” El Al, whose handling of the situation was abysmal, fanned the flames and bolstered the story with threats of the “arrest of some individuals.” Over Shabbat, as the story grew legs in the secular press, Israelis lamented the spiritual hijack of the plane, but deeper, the angst that some feel over what some see as the hijack of the country.
While the press was painting a picture of religious coercion, another story unfolded for the 150 stranded passengers in Athens. With a few hours’ notice, Chabad’s Athens representatives, Rabbi Mendel and Nechama Hendel, prepared a Shabbat dinner for their unexpected guests. Most of the passengers were not, in fact, haredi. It was a mix of religious Zionists, Sephardim, hassidim and Litvaks, including one of the most notable Lithuanian yeshiva scholars in Israel. Together, they sat down to celebrate Shabbat with songs, prayers, good food and shared words of Torah. Free of differences and outside expressions – their traditional Shabbat garb buried in the luggage hold of the plane – and a closeness stemming from their shared situation, a remarkable sense of unity developed among the crowd.
The highlight of the Shabbat came when some of the travelers discovered that Rabbi Hendel’s effort to build a new mikva (ritual bath) in the heart of the city had been stymied by financial constraints. A building had been purchased but funds were still needed to begin renovations. Traveler Rabbi Akiva Katz told Hendel, “Don’t worry I’ll take care of it,” and just before the Torah reading, to the Hendel’s surprise, he announced a building campaign. Rabbi David Derli of Tiberius pledged a generous contribution and others followed his lead. A bit more still needs to be raised, but the dream of a new mikva is now much more realistic.
After Shabbat, the passengers in Athens read the false reports in the Israeli press and a social media earthquake erupted. A reporter from Israel Hayom, who was one of the passengers in Athens for Shabbat, provided a detailed account refuting much of what the Israeli media had reported. Clearly, there was no violence or disruption. Those with secular biases had simply distorted the news, and it was compounded by El Al untruths.
The lessons are clear. Firstly, the Israeli press needs to follow the basic rules of journalism when they report on the religious community. Their abdication of professional standards of verification and basing a story on rumors posted on Facebook, is nothing but fake news. This is not the first time that writers of a secular bent let their own bias guide their reporting. Just a few months ago, wild accusations of unruly behavior by haredim on a flight from London was also disproved.
Secondly, as for El Al, they have major challenges ahead. Telling passengers in JFK you’re returning to the terminal and allowing them to deplane but instead taking off is lying. Trying to cover it up with a PR spin blaming the passengers is unconscionable. El Al has yet to own up to its mistakes, and might well suffer, as more passengers abandon it for other carriers.
Finally, the biggest lesson of all comes from the from the impromptu fund-raising drive for the new mikveh in central Athens; Jews marooned in a small Jewish community initiating a campaign to help,  reveals the profound connection that binds us all together as a people. A lesson that all of us can take to heart.
It might be wise for El Al executives to contact Rabbi Hendel, he still needs a few more dollars for the mikveh. A corporate grant to those who turned their mismanagement into a beautiful experience for passengers would really help brush up their image. El Al might even fly the passengers back to Athens in a few months for the future mikveh dedication ceremony, where a plaque can be unveiled reading: “Donated by the passengers of flight LY002 with a grant from El Al Israel Airlines.”
The author is a Chabad shaliach in California.