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ometimes you need to act fast and map out the contours of a story before it’s taken a definite shape. That’s what happened two weeks ago on Motzaei Shabbos, when we plugged back in after Hadvalah and discovered multiple news items about an El Al flight that had been diverted to Athens because—

Well, that was one of the issues. Because why? Because of a snowstorm in New York? Because it had taken off too late? Because chareidi passengers had rioted violently and forced the crew to change the flight path?

After doing some initial research that night, we met on Sunday morning to discuss our coverage. This wasn’t the first time the frum community had experienced tension with El Al. With this flagrant violation of the airline’s charter, was it time for the frum community to reevaluate its longstanding relationship with El Al? And could we build a story around that question?

But then there were those reports of violence, along with the knowledge of the legal, halachic, and logistical difficulties of taxiing back to the gate after a flight had been boarded. As far as we knew, if passengers disembark that means their luggage must be removed as well — a delay of several more hours, with certain chillul Shabbos for everyone left aboard. Some members of our news team questioned how we could possibly report such negative behavior. Violence by chareidim is unseemly, distasteful, certainly something we wouldn’t want to highlight. How to proceed?

We started tracking down contact information of people who had been aboard the flight and reporter Gedalia Guttentag began reaching out to them. He reached out to El Al and was directed to interview an official spokesman. We perused the first-person accounts that started cropping up online, discussed the updates, and tried to figure out what really happened. And we talked about terminology. No question, there had been raised voices. Is screaming violence, or is screaming an understandable form of dialogue when your most cherished values are at stake? (Also, is screaming just the term an American would use to describe the Israeli form of communication utilized by a Sabra who feels he’s not being heard?)

Later that morning, Gedalia spoke to the Chabad shaliach, Rabbi Mendel Hendel of Athens, who is one of the heroes of the story. He described a herculean effort along with his wife Nechama to pull together food and provisions for the stranded passengers. And he also shared an interesting nugget of information.

Rabbi Hendel was contacted by El Al after the flight crew realized they could not continue to Israel. He was asked to arrange Shabbos meals for the observant passengers who would be spending Shabbos in Athens. The number of passengers he was told to expect: 70.

After springing into action, preparing and packing up the food and making last-minute arrangements, he and his wife were in the car on his way to the hotel — about 40 minutes’ drive from his headquarters — when El Al contacted him again. We made a little mistake, they said. It turns out that there will be 150 passengers to feed. Do you think you can get more food?

No, they couldn’t get any more food at that point. But Rabbi and Rebbetzin Hendel made a quick calculation. They had prepared enough food for three meals for each passenger. If they’d serve two meals instead — one night meal and one day meal — there would be enough for everyone. And that’s what they did.

 

This little story seemed just that — a creative, clever twist in a bigger story of bad weather, bad communication, and bad optics. Apparently El Al had calculated their Shabbos count based on the number of passengers who had ordered “special kosher” meals. Then, when they informed the passengers about the option of staying in Athens for Shabbos, 150 passengers lined up. It was an interesting twist, a colorful detail. We discussed it for a few minutes, then got back to the job of tracking down people who’d been on the flight and trying to piece together a story that was balanced, responsible, fact-based, and raised the important questions without resorting to libel or conjecture.

But sitting at the Shabbos table that week with my family, discussing all the first-person accounts and official answers and media coverage and fake news that the story had spawned, I found myself highlighting this detail as the key to the whole mess. It hadn’t seemed so important back on Sunday, but now it was almost the linchpin.

El Al had assumed that only those “adukim” — the fervently religious Jews for whom the standard kosher meals weren’t kosher enough — would sacrifice whatever it took in order to keep Shabbos. They didn’t realize that tens more passengers were equally appalled at the thought of desecrating Shabbos. They didn’t realize that Shabbos is cherished by dozens many more than those who battle to open those double-wrapped “special kosher” meals. They didn’t realize that their neat mental map splitting the “rioting” chareidim against the compliant majority who just wanted to get home quickly, was utterly divorced from reality. They didn’t realize that Shabbos belongs to every Jew, not only those who dress in black. That religion is something wider and deeper — and more encompassing yet more nuanced — than a black and white label.

Today, if we were building the story from scratch, we’d include a lot more details. We’d talk about the scandalous Channel Ten coverage of the flight: The station aired a video of the religious passengers yelling angrily — when it had in fact doctored the video from the original soundtrack, where the passengers had been singing Shabbos songs as a form of peaceful albeit passionate protest. We’d likely talk about El Al’s initial threat to investigate the “violent” passengers, followed by their lukewarm apology and admission of error. We might explore the sloppiness of allowing the flight staff to share their version of events via social media without any advance coordination.

But we’d probably lead with the story of that phone call Rabbi Hendel received on his way to the Athens hotel — the phone call that unwittingly testified to the El Al elites’ disastrous misreading of their passengers’ deepest values.

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 738)