| Magazine Feature |

Sky’s the Limit  

 A rebranded frum-friendly El Al upgrades its image and its bottom line

Photos: Jeff Zorabedian

When El Al was bought out by an Orthodox company in 2020 following reported losses for several consecutive years, the Israeli national carrier realized that becoming a frum-friendly airline could have a significant impact on its bottom line. And so, after years of Shabbos wars and other threats, the airline has rebranded itself not only as an entity embracing its Israeli heritage, but its religious roots as well

Stashed amid the bins of in-flight snacks and kiddie coloring books in the rear galley of the Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, the blue metal box holding ten ArtScroll iPads that are available for passenger use pretty much sums up the new EL AL. Over the past four years, Israel’s national airline has evolved, and the many facets of its signature sabra personality now also include a distinctly chareidi vibe.


Despite having flown more than ten times over the past year, including twice on Dreamliners, I jumped at the opportunity to take a personal tour of an EL AL aircraft. It wasn’t just about seeing how the other half lives (here’s looking at you, business class, with your lie-flat seats and capacious elbow room), it was also a great opportunity to take in EL AL’s latest enhancements, designed to woo travelers just like me.

I met up with photographer Jeff Zorabedian at Newark Liberty International Airport’s Terminal B. Olivia Lagdoue, who works with EL AL’s contracted ground operations team at Newark, took our passports and handed us tickets for standby seats on the midday flight to Tel Aviv, which would allow us to get through the terminal. Unsurprisingly, getting near the EL AL 787-9 Dreamliner just four hours prior to takeoff was quite a feat. While we were escorted through the terminal and whisked through various lines, we still had to go through security, and even my TSA-PreCheck status didn’t spare me from having to remove my shoes and send my bag down the conveyor belt to be x-rayed.

We waited at the gate for about 15 minutes before Lagdoue led us down the jetway and onto the plane, where we were greeted by two badges of honor. The first was a black-and-gold decal affixed to the outside of the aircraft proudly proclaiming EL AL as an APEX five-star global airline, a distinction it could not have dreamed of until recently, and the second, a white plaque mounted to the wall at the doorway bearing the words of Tefillas Haderech in blue lettering. At the bottom of the plaque were the Hebrew words, “Tzeischem u’voachem l’shalom” (May your departures and arrivals be in peace), making it clear to passengers from the minute they board that even though there is a flight crew operating the massive jet, the true Pilot is in a realm far above cruising altitude. By the same token, it comes as no surprise to hear that on some flights, the crew has been known to say Tefillas Haderech over the PA system, reiterating EL AL’s ironclad belief that first and foremost, its entire fleet is in Hashem’s hands.

While many parts of the Dreamliner are utilized the same way on every airline, there are some features on this craft that are uniquely EL AL, including the airline’s custom-designed washing cups, created to meet the needs of the frum traveler. A smaller version of the two-handled washing cups that exist in practically every Jewish home, each one holds 195 milliliters, nearly 6.6 ounces, more than the required amount of water for netilas yadayim, with brackets installed next to the lavatory sink keeping the cups neatly out of the way when not in use. A prototype of the cup from its initial design stages sits proudly on a shelf in the office of EL AL chief operating officer and deputy chief executive officer Omry Cohen, who has been with the airline since 2020, and has initiated or overseen many of the new frum-friendly services and features that El Al has rolled out in recent years.

Beyond National

Our tour of the plane was preceded by an interview with Cohen. For some reason, I was expecting someone attired in a business casual black T-shirt and looking very much like he just stepped off the streets of Tel Aviv, so I was surprised when Cohen was wearing a white button-down shirt with a trim beard, looking like a typical member of my Monsey shul.

Cohen was born in Israel, but he had been living in the Five Towns for more than two decades when he was tapped to play a major role in EL AL, which had been struggling mightily even before the pandemic hit. The airline had been reporting losses for several consecutive years, and the shutdown of Israel’s borders to foreigners during the pandemic exacerbated the situation. Help came from across the Atlantic at the end of that summer in the form of the newly created Kanfei Nesharim Aviation, a company owned by the family of Centers Health Care CEO Kenny Rozenberg, who became the airline’s majority stakeholder.

Cohen was the chief operating officer at a Centers Health Care company in September 2020 when he got the phone call that changed the trajectory of his career.

“They called me up and told me, ‘We’re growing EL AL, and we would like you to be part of that,’” he recalls.

Cohen and his wife Sara were very much a part of the Five Towns community. Their four boys attended Yeshiva Darchei Torah, with their oldest son’s bar mitzvah just weeks away. Having been with Centers for 15 years, Cohen was vaguely aware that the company had been in discussions with EL AL, but the offer came out of the blue, and would mean major changes for the entire family.

“There were a lot of conversations with my wife, and it took a lot of convincing,” Cohen admits. “My wife is an important part of our success here, and without her we wouldn’t be where we are today.”

Cohen agreed to accept the offer, and the family relocated to Ramat Beit Shemesh. The fact that the move took place during COVID, when regular routines were already disrupted, made the transition relatively smooth.

“Our kids hadn’t been in school for months at that point in time, and they saw it as an experience,” Cohen notes. “Children are children, and they adapt quickly.”

One of several new hires to EL AL’s C-suite who brought fresh eyes and new expertise to the airline’s figurative tray table, Cohen knew from his first day as vice president of business operations that he faced a daunting task. Slowly but surely, EL AL implemented changes in areas like flight planning and tracking technology, leading to lower operating costs. EL AL also accelerated the retirement of its older 747s, replacing them with 17 state-of-the-art Dreamliners, which upgraded the flight experience even for economy passengers.

Understanding that becoming a frum-friendly airline could have a significant impact on its bottom line, Cohen helped EL AL redefine itself as an entity that embraced not only its Israeli heritage, but its religious roots as well.

“There was a vision, a deep desire to build something unique and special for Israel and for the Jewish people, creating a bridge that could make a kiddush Hashem,” says Cohen.

In retrospect, that approach proved fortuitous, given the many times over the past four years that EL AL has been the only carrier operating flights in and out of Israel.

“I am sure at the time people thought the takeover was crazy,” notes Cohen, who was appointed to his current position in April 2022. “But seeing EL AL’s role today — where would Israel, where would Jews around the world, be today without EL AL in just the last nine months alone?”

A Higher Calling

The vicissitudes of COVID proved to be a good opportunity for major multilevel changes at EL AL. With Rozenberg at the helm, the airline took steps that made it more relatable to its many Orthodox flyers. Perhaps the greatest indication that EL AL is deeply committed to Torah values is the fact that it now has an official consultant for all halachic matters. All questions regarding policy for religious issues, including kashrus, are presented to Rabbi Shlomo Danino. A student of Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef and a disciple of Israeli Chief Rabbi Yitzchak Yosef, Rabbi Danino is the rav of Ya’ara, a moshav located near the Lebanese border.

All food and drinks served on EL AL are strictly kosher, and any meat dishes on planes flying out of the United States are glatt. Hechsherim vary by location — EL AL’s regular meals are certified kosher by the OU on flights from Newark, JFK, and Boston; local kashrus agencies certify meals on flights from Los Angeles, Miami, and Fort Lauderdale; and Israeli Rabbanut is the standard hechsher on flights from Tel Aviv. Passengers on all flights can also choose from a large selection of double-wrapped mehadrin meals bearing chareidi hechsherim, with fish and vegetarian meals available for those who prefer to avoid meat, and special meals for pint-size passengers. Milk on every EL AL flight is chalav Yisrael, and don’t even try asking a flight attendant for milk with your coffee during a meat meal; even if you didn’t become fleishig, the answer will be a hard (but polite) no.

If you think Pesach cleaning your home is tough, imagine deep cleaning and kashering 47 jetliners, as well as multiple kitchens located around the world — all while trying to keep to a regular flight schedule. EL AL brings in crews from Israeli yeshivos and kashrus organizations to get the job done. Working overnight, the teams that Cohen describes as a “mini army” kasher ovens, keilim, and any other utensils, such as the carts used for food, with the whole process overseen by Rabbi Danino. The massive cleaning operation is done as close to Pesach as possible so passengers aren’t eating kosher l’Pesach food two weeks before Yom Tov, with the last plane usually completed a day and a half before Pesach.

Pesach isn’t the only Yom Tov or event that involves special preparations. Since lighting a flame is prohibited on a jetliner, the Chanukah candles kindled on EL AL planes are electric, and it goes without saying that sufganiyot are served as well. When Purim rolls around, hamantaschen are distributed by flight attendants wearing festive masks, and there are always passengers reading Megillas Esther aloud during the flight. Conversely, no meat is served during the Nine Days, while on fast days, meal service may be bumped up to an earlier time to accommodate those who are about to begin the fast, or delayed so that food isn’t being served to passengers who can’t eat yet.

Bringing niftarim to Israel is a responsibility EL AL takes seriously, and one that involves complex halachic issues, particularly for Kohanim. EL AL’s planes have been thoroughly inspected by Rabbi Danino to understand how they are built and what options exist to accommodate Kohanim who are willing to rely on certain halachic leniencies, including placing every casket inside a cardboard box whose two-tefach clearance between the aron and the roof of the box creates its own ohel.

Kohanim who are more machmir should be aware that Newark is EL AL’s only departure city in the United States where they can be guaranteed that there will be no meisim on the plane. There is one exception to that rule — with JFK increasing its Israel-bound flights during the summer months, there is one flight each week that does not carry niftarim. The airline also takes great care to create flight paths that don’t pass over any cemeteries in Israel to avoid potential problems for Kohanim.

EL AL’s entertainment system has special content for aveilim, including a shiur from YUTorah on topics of mourning, and another from Israel’s Kol Halashon on the halachos that apply to an onen — the status accorded to close family members before burial. The compassion and sensitivity accorded the bereaved often extends beyond EL AL’s staff. Cohen shared a recent incident where a niftar was being transported to Israel on a full flight, and there wasn’t a single seat available for the five family members who wanted to accompany the deceased.

“Someone brought the situation to my attention and I was happy to hear that EL AL was already aware of it and had been working on it, moving things around, finding ways to get the grieving family on the flight,” says Cohen. “They could have just said the flight was full, but they made the phone calls, speaking to passengers who were booked on the flight, asking if they would take a later one. Mi k’amcha Yisrael, we were able to bring all five family members to Israel in time for the kevurah.”

While every airline has a lost and found department, EL AL sees reuniting passengers with their belongings as a mitzvah.

“I have personally been approached by random people telling me, ‘My wife forgot her siddur, her AirPods,’” says Cohen. “We take the opportunity to do the mitzvah wherever we can.”

EL AL’s head of New York operations at JFK, Gil Radomsky, has combed through bags and bags of garbage to find items that were accidentally discarded. Particular attention is paid to talleisim and tefillin that are left behind, and the ground crew goes into high gear when such items are found at a specific seat, so that they can be returned to their owners before they leave the airport.

Once a passenger has been identified by the name on the bag or their seat number, EL AL staff does its best to intercept them at immigration or baggage claim. When it comes to other items, particularly those of high value, passengers often receive phone calls informing them their belongings have been found. In her three years working with EL AL, Lagdoue has found that while some passengers leave things behind on purpose, many will return to the airport to claim their possessions, and those who live too far away will send EL AL a shipping label so the lost item can be sent to them.

On a Wing and a Prayer

EL AL’s entertainment system is one of several components that underwent significant modifications after the 2020 takeover.

“Especially on transatlantic flights, we knew that a very significant and important segment of the traveling population was looking for something else,” says Cohen, referring to in-flight screen entertainment options.

Cohen instructed his marketing team to create partnerships with numerous entities including the Orthodox Union, Yeshiva University’s YUTorah, Torah Anytime and 24Six, so that in addition to choosing from a collection of carefully curated content, kids’ programming and interactive games during their flights, EL AL’s frum passengers can also catch any one of a number of shiurim or enjoy their favorite music. Travelers flying between the United States and Israel can reserve an ArtScroll iPad when booking their ticket, or they can request a device in-flight if any are available. The tablets, which are delivered to passengers’ seats after takeoff, are loaded with the complete ArtScroll digital library, so passengers who want to look up sources as they learn Daf Yomi or write a shiur have all the information they need at their fingertips.

Davening from 35,000 feet in the air presents certain challenges, and even those who are familiar with zemanim can run into questions, particularly on the Dreamliner, whose dimmable windows may be intentionally darkened during a flight to allow flyers to catch some sleep. Cohen solved that problem by having his team reach out to the same company that provides EL AL with its mapping technology. The company, which happens to be Jewish-owned, worked hand in hand with EL AL to create a live location-based zemanim feature, giving passengers the ability to use the plane’s in-flight entertainment system to determine the earliest time to put on tallis and tefillin or the latest zeman to daven Shacharis.

EL AL also addressed other davening-related issues that passengers can encounter on an overseas flight, and devised ways to balance multiple factors like timing, turbulence, in-flight service, and chiyuvim.

“You can create strict policy and procedure and still meet with challenges,” acknowledges Cohen. “We realized the best solution is conversation, and we found that dialogue brings understanding and shalom.”

It is usually the head flight attendant who sets the time for davening, encouraging passengers who want to be part of a minyan to gather in the rear or center galleys of the plane. Pinpointing the proper time to daven is part of the flight process on EL AL, and flight attendants will typically announce the start of an upcoming minyan. And while it might seem that EL AL’s flight attendants roll their eyes as davening monopolizes the plane, the opposite is often true. In one incident, a nonobservant crew member approached a group of men in puzzlement as their minyan began to disperse, asking why they hadn’t said Tehillim as they finished davening.

Preflight davening in the airport is also something El Al addresses. While it would seem that davening in the gate area before boarding a late-night flight makes the most sense, that isn’t actually the case, at least not at Newark, where it’s better for passengers to daven after they walk through the doorway leading to the jetway.

“That way they are out of the way and we can keep things moving,” notes Lagdoue.

Plane and Simple

Keeping its finger on the pulse of the frum community means that EL AL is well aware of key travel seasons as well as the Yamim Tovim. The airline’s back office keeps track of the dates of bein hazmanim, seminary schedules, Lag B’omer, and an assortment of widely observed yahrtzeits. Summer is a big time for flyers as well, and the airline ups the number of weekly flights from the USA from approximately 40 to more than 50, and there are days when there are as many as six flights departing from JFK alone.

Scheduling flights involves approvals from departure and arrival airports, civil aviation agencies, security, and other entities, making it a complicated process for any carrier. Given those realities, schedules are booked a full year in advance, and it goes without saying that EL AL has considerations other airlines do not. Buffers are built in for all pre- and post-Shabbos flights to allow passengers and staff time to arrive at the airport without encountering halachic issues.

Since the 2020 takeover, EL AL has made certain scheduling changes. Motzaei Shabbos flights from Newark and JFK were pushed off several hours to a pre-midnight departure time to avoid a frenzied post-Shabbos scramble to the airport. The airline also stopped flying its own summertime Motzaei Shabbos flight out of Heathrow Airport in London, offering the flight through a partner airline instead, because the timing just didn’t work with the late summer Shabbos times.

“The flight left too soon after Shabbos, and there was no other option because the airport closes at 11:30,” recalls Cohen.

Rabbi Danino is often consulted in cases of flight delays that occur on Fridays, or even Thursdays during the winter. Various factors are considered, including landing time, how quickly passengers can deplane, and how long it will take to unload luggage. Protocols created by Rabbi Danino account for those realities, and flights that don’t make the cutoff times can, and have been, canceled. And if that decision means that a plane that was needed at a particular location on Motzaei Shabbos may actually be in a completely different airport once Havdalah has been made? That’s part of the cost of doing business when you are a shomer Shabbos airline.

On most EL AL flights, disagreements between passengers who want to swap seats are rare. Aside from an Israeli court ruling making it illegal for EL AL to remove any passenger from their assigned seats, there is a greater sense of awareness, and according to Cohen, passengers have come to realize that polite conversation is a better way to solve problems.

That sense of camaraderie that exists between passengers also extends to the crew. In one recent incident, a Tel Aviv-bound passenger who was traveling from Miami to await the birth of a new grandchild discovered during her flight that the baby had arrived. When a member of the crew overheard the passenger sharing her good news with other passengers, she returned to the woman’s seat with champagne and a heartfelt mazel tov.

While EL AL’s efforts to cater to frum flyers have become increasingly clear since Kanfei Nesharim’s 2020 takeover, Cohen is confident that EL AL’s business product rivals or surpasses that of its competitors.

“There is sometimes a misconception that you can want a washing cup on your flight, but aren’t expecting a first-class experience,” says Cohen. “We are doing both — with the best crews, plus all of the things that passengers want to have.”

While EL AL has often been the only way to get to and from Israel in the last nine months, Cohen hopes to maintain customer loyalty, even when the skies reopen permanently.

“We intend to take this opportunity the day after as well, so that even when people can fly any airline they want, they still choose EL AL because they enjoyed the experience,” says Cohen.

Overhead Accommodations

EL AL typically has two pilots and a first officer flying between the United States and Tel Aviv. While the cockpit and its many dials, levers, screens, and switches is impressive, it was the sleeping area that really blew me away as we continued our tour of the Dreamliner. Crew members need to take breaks on long transatlantic flights, and they can grab a few hours of downtime in the Crew Rest Compartment, located just outside the cockpit.

Let’s just say that the wall-mounted sign next to the door leading to the sleeping area that warns of low-head clearance definitely wins the award for understatement of the year. The compartment is tiny, and more than a little cramped. Pilots have to clamber up seven feet to reach a horizontal platform where each crew member, no matter how tall, is allocated a curtained-off six-by-three-foot mattress. EL AL assured me that the vertical space between the floor and the ceiling is four feet high, but that number seemed overly generous to me.

The sleeping quarters near the rear galley of the plane that sleeps six attendants are even cozier, with slightly less square footage allocated to them than the crew members who are actually flying the plane. It is safe to say that most passengers have no idea that there are crew members catching forty winks over their heads, although when I flew home from Israel this past winter, I did notice a flurry of flight attendants emerging one after another from behind a tiny door. The sight was reminiscent of the clown car act in the circus and certainly wasn’t something I expected to see 35,000 feet over the Atlantic.

As big as they are, EL AL’s Dreamliners are like Ikea on steroids, with every inch of the more than 200-foot-long aircraft put to good use. The carts and bins are arranged in the galleys with military precision, and closets and cubbies fill any existing gaps, ensuring that the total amount of wasted space on the aircraft is zero. Lagdoue showed us one compartment that held extra seat covers, in case of any serious messes that would require a change of that nature, and a narrow closet that might be used to hold coats, lulavim, or other long items that will not do well crammed in overhead bins.

“We hope there aren’t too many wheelchairs and guitars on the same flight,” observes Lagdoue. “But if that happens, we can always send the wheelchairs under the plane in a container, while the guitars, which are more delicate, would be kept here in the closet.”

Lagdoue also showed us a pair of green metal cases, which occupied nearly half of a premium class overhead bin, containing medical equipment for a passenger on the upcoming afternoon flight. EL AL often flies passengers seeking medical treatment along with a mandatory accompanying physician, and while every circumstance is different, cases like the ones we saw typically include a first aid kit, oxygen, advanced life support medications and supplies, as well as a defibrillator.

Another notable moment was when we stopped to take pictures of the outside of the Dreamliner. Since we weren’t cleared to go out on the tarmac, our best view was from a massive window adjacent to the doorway that led back out to the gate area. Lagdoue pointed out a small gray car parked on the tarmac near the Dreamliner’s nose, with a white square patch identifying it as an EL AL vehicle. Manned by airline personnel, the car sits on the tarmac whenever there is a plane at the gate. EL AL declined to specify the number of people in the vehicle at any given time and would not confirm whether or not they are armed, sharing only that any incidents are reported directly to Newark’s security teams.

Before heading back out to the real world, we were also given a crash course on some identifying features of EL AL’s fleet, all of which are named after Israeli cities. The plane we toured was Rishon Letzion, with other 787s identified as Ashdod, Bat Yam, and Kfar Saba, to name a few. EL AL’s livery, the design on its planes, is the same on nearly the entire fleet, a graceful blue and silver stripe swooping from the aircraft’s lower front section up to the tail, culminating in the blue stripes and single star of the Israeli flag. The two exceptions to that rule are Rehovot, which is outfitted in the vintage livery that was used on EL AL planes in the 1960s, and Yerushalayim Shel Zahav, whose livery matches the remainder of the fleet, the usual silver trim swapped out for gold.

I’ll be honest. For just a few seconds as we walked back out into the terminal, I really did want to use that standby ticket I was holding, with Rishon Letzion departing in exactly three hours. The Dreamliner was calling my name, and who can resist a flight to Israel, even if it means taking nothing more than the clothing on your back?

With a brief sigh, I followed Lagdoue back out to the terminal’s exit doors. Clearly, my next EL AL flight would have to wait, but still, a girl can dream, can’t she? —

Turbulent Times

EL AL was transformed into a flying chesed machine in the days following the October 7 tragedy. Various organizations partnered with the carrier in humanitarian missions to bring essential supplies to Israel from the United States, and the numbers speak for themselves:

22 tons of donated medical equipment and supplies on an October 18 plane jointly sponsored by EL AL and the Amudim organization, with donated materials filling the cargo hold and nearly all of the jumbo jet’s 271 seats.

12,658 bags, weighing over 13,000 tons, of donated essential cargo, including defense equipment and medical supplies, sent on EL AL planes by various organizations from the United States, from October through the end of June.

180 flights, give or take, added to EL AL’s schedule from November through March to meet the unprecedented need.

200+ chayalim flew on a dedicated soldier flight from JFK the first week of the war, when EL AL started transporting soldiers and reservists who were abroad at the time and were desperate to return to fight. The airline also transported hundreds of IDF members from all over the world, with some sleeping on the plane’s floor so they could make their way back to defend Israel in its time of need.

“Everyone was stretched and giving 150 percent,” recalls COO Omry Cohen of that time. “We were mamash in the air nonstop — if we could have refueled in midair we would have.”

EL AL relaxed its pricing and its baggage policies for months as Israel struggled to claw its way back from the epic tragedy. In addition to transporting widows and orphans, EL AL has done what it can to help the bereaved cope with trauma.

Many of EL AL’s employees enlisted in the IDF as the crisis continued, leaving the airline facing a pilot shortage and rushing to fill the gaps in its roster. With some members of EL AL’s crew serving in the army as reservists, there have been and continue to be pilots who have flown over Gaza in the morning for the IDF, and then sit down in an EL AL cockpit that same night, flying a plane full of passengers to Los Angeles, Lisbon, or London.

Trivial Pursuits

In May 1960, EL AL played a role in the Mossad’s capture of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires that went beyond just flying him from Argentina to Israel. After the Mossad apprehended Eichmann in Buenos Aries, he was partially sedated and dressed in an EL AL crew uniform. Mossad agents led Eichmann through the airport to the awaiting EL AL plane, passing him off as a sick member of the flight crew to avoid arousing the suspicion of Argentinian airport authorities.

EL AL earned a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records in May 1991 for the most passengers ever carried by a commercial airliner when it managed to get approximately 1,100 people on a 747 as it evacuated Ethiopian Jews to Israel during Operation Solomon. EL AL removed all of the seats from the planes used in the evacuation; reports differ slightly on the exact number of passengers on the record-setting flight, with some pegging the count at 1,078 and other at 1,122.

EL AL flew daily flights to Tehran until the Islamic Revolution in 1979, when the country cut all ties with Israel.

One of EL AL’s Dreamliner pilots is a chareidi woman named Nechama, a mother of eight.

It’s all in the family at EL AL, which, in addition to having pilots whose fathers once flew for the airline, also has a pair of pilots who are father and son. EL AL’s flight attendants include mothers and daughters and sisters, who sometimes work the same flight.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1019)

Oops! We could not locate your form.