Photo Credit: Yaakov Naumi / Flash 90

Two El Al flights from New York City to Israel late Thursday — following a brief but messy snowstorm that paralyzed the city — departed JFK airport after a five hour delay. Dozens of passengers ended up spending their Shabbat in Athens; others landed in Israel long after the start of the holy Sabbath. Neither flight arrived happy.

The airline said in a statement Friday that “extreme weather in New York is causing cancellations and delays in hundreds of flight, including El Al flights that left Israel last night. Due to the delays… the company is forced to land Flight 002 in Athens and Flight 008 in Rome.

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“EL AL will take care of alternative flights to Israel for all passengers. In addition, passengers who prefer to stay in Athens or Rome on Shabbat will be treated by representatives of the company and do not worry about returning them to Israel at the end of Shabbat. We apologize for the inconvenience caused to our customers.”

The flight crew arrived hours late due to snow-related problems with the bus and the traffic on the way to the airport — problems that caused delays throughout the city, reported on local media. Nevertheless, passengers noted that all of them had had similar warnings and each had managed to arrive on time; how was it that flight crew were unable to make the same arrangements?

Flight LY 008 ultimately was redirected to Rome, where it was scheduled to land at 3:00 pm in order to avoid desecrating the Sabbath. But in the end, that did not happen due to a medical emergency aboard the aircraft; Israel’s Chief Sephardi Rabbi in concert with the medical officer and CEO of El Al decided together to permit the flight to continue on to Tel Aviv instead, despite the probability the plane would arrive after the start of the holy Sabbath. An ambulance met the aircraft on the tarmac at Ben Gurion International Airport.

Flight LY 002, however, was a different story that at least one passenger has described as an experience that felt a bit like a hijacking. It’s unlikely anyone would have known the truth about what happened, had there not been so many observant Jewish journalists aboard.

As it happens, the captain of the flight probably had no idea those journalists were among the passengers when he ignored requests from observant Jewish passengers to be allowed to disembark when it became clear on Friday the flight would not reach Israel in time to avoid desecrating the holy Sabbath.

That was the start of a nightmare that lasted for the entire flight, according to a Facebook post by Israel Hayom journalist Yehuda Shlezinger, Times of Israel blogger Betsalel Steinhart (also the Education Director of Ramah Israel) and former National Union Knesset Member Yaakov ‘Ketzaleh’ Katz, group chairman for Arutz Sheva — all of whom have written or spoken to media about the flight.

A report by Israel’s Channel 2 that hareidi-religious Jews began rioting on the flight and attacking flight attendants when it became clear they wouldn’t arrive before Shabbat, was patently untrue, according to all accounts by the above sources. Claims that hareidim pushed and cursed flight attendants, and threatened to break into the cockpit, were also “not true.”

Worse, reassurances by the captain himself at the start of the flight — that it would take off shortly, that it would land before Shabbat, and then when it became clear that was not the case, that the plane was returning to the gate — were also lies.

“Instead of returning to the gate he went and took off,” Katz said. “We’re already going … we’re first in line … every time they told us lies,” Shlezinger said. “The captain blatantly lied to us,” Steinhart confirmed. “At 23:40 when it was clear that if we took off, we would land shortly before Shabbat in Israel, many religious people were demanding to be let off the plane. In order to get them to sit down, the pilot announced that we were returning to the gate and to please sit. He then drove and took off within a few minutes — and of course in your seat you have no idea where the plane is driving towards. Lies.”

During the flight itself, Shlezinger documented flight attendants who decided to punish hareidi passengers — who were understandably upset at being trapped on the flight — by refusing to continue service, and a male flight attendant who was violent and grabbed his camera — but when learning he had attacked a journalist, rapidly apologized and dialled back his behavior.

Two hours prior to landing, the captain announced that the religious passengers would disembark in Athens, and secular passengers would continue on to Tel Aviv. No choice was given. More anxiety and outrage ensued among the passengers.

Those who did indeed disembark in Athens were met by an El Al representative who guided them through to the hotel across the street from the airport and through the chaos, according to a first-person report on COLLive. They had everything they needed for a perfect Shabbat meal, thanks to Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries Rabbi Mendel and Rebbetzin Nechama Hendel.

That Shabbat (Sabbath) in Athens was described by passenger Ben Chafetz as “something amazing, beautiful and enlightening.” He offered his greatest thanks for that unique experience to “Rabbi Shalom Ber Sorotzkin, who had the foresight before the plane took off to have his organization contact El-Al and Chabad and put pressure on to make this Shabbos happen, Rabbi Mendel and Rebbetzin Nechama Hendel, the Chabad Rabbi and Rebbetzin based in Athens, Greece … They got the call at 11 am Friday morning and by 4 pm that same afternoon they had prepared a beautiful Shabbos for 150+ adults which was not lacking in any way, and my 150+ new friends and passengers who gave me an experience and Shabbos I will never forget.”

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Hana Levi Julian is a Middle East news analyst with a degree in Mass Communication and Journalism from Southern Connecticut State University. A past columnist with The Jewish Press and senior editor at Arutz 7, Ms. Julian has written for Babble.com, Chabad.org and other media outlets, in addition to her years working in broadcast journalism.
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