Weekly Chasidic Story #1093 (s5779-11/
11 Kislev 5779)
Last-Minute Shabbat Meals at Chabad of Athens
These were 150+ Jews from all walks of life, with varied backgrounds and clothing
styles, who were concerned about Shabbos. Everyone coming off the plane was
united in one thing: Shabbos is our gift and our inheritance from the Creator
and we would uphold it.
Connection:In this week's Torah Reading Vayishlach, Ya'akov establishes
limits for the distance allowed for walking in uninhabited areas on Shabbat
Story in PDF
format for more convenient printing.
Last-Minute Shabbat Meals at Chabad of Athens
by Ben Chefetz (Sat. nite, Nov. 17)
[Bracketed clarifications and footnotes are mine -YT]
This Shabbos I had the tremendous privilege to be a part of something amazing,
beautiful and enlightening. I am hoping El Al [management] will see this and
understand that there is a much better headline than the false headline "Haredim
Riot on Plane" which I currently see online.
Here is the short of it. Our El Al flight was supposed to leave at 6:30pm [on
Thursday, and arrive in Israel at 11:30am on Friday]. 3 members of the crew
were late and we started boarding at 8:30pm during which the crew members arrived.
At 9:10pm the flight doors were closed and everything was calm for about an
At around 10pm many of the passengers who were concerned about Shabbos starting
asking the crew members for detail about departure and no answers were given
other than we are leaving in 5 minutes. Keep in mind, that at 10:25pm sitting
on a JFK runway, El-AL's website showed our flight as enroute, having departed
I was sitting in business class, my seat was directly next to the stairs going
to second floor, and 3 rows behind the first class food prep galley. I heard
every exchange. At no time was there any physical threat presented by passengers
concerned about Shabbos. I am loathe to use the term Chareidim [or 'ultra-Orthodox'],
this was not some Neturei Karta [Jewish radical anti-Zionist] protest
full of black clad chasidim spewing nonsense. These were Jews from all walks
of life and varied backgrounds who were concerned about Shabbos.
At 11:35pm there were about 40 passengers, myself included, who stood by the
exit door and expressed our wishes to disembark from the plane. By this time
we were sitting on the tarmac for two and half hours. One of the stewardesses
told us that if they take us back to the gate and we get off the plane we would
lose our tickets and not be rebooked. I am not sure if she was trying to shock
us into sitting or if this was the real policy, but our response was unanimous;
every single person said that's fine, we are ok with that, just take us back
to the gate so we don't violate Shabbos. Not one person said, "What?? No
,you have to rebook us", or, "you can't do that", there was a
simple, basic understanding, we had Shabbos.
At one point someone, whom I later found out to be Rabbi Shalom Ber Sorotzkin,
got on the intercom and said that he spoke to the pilot, and that the pilot
guaranteed we would get to the airport before Shabbos, and that he (Rabbi Sorotzkin)
arranged for everyone to have a place and a meal for Shabbos if they did not
have time get to where they needed, since we would arrive only one hour before
Many of us, myself included, did not sit down and expressed our desire to go
back to the gate.
At that point the captain came onto the intercom. He told us we were going
to go back to the gate as soon as everyone was seated. And we all went back
to our seats.
I can't begin to describe the sinking feeling in my stomach as I saw the plane
turn away from the terminals and face the runway. In less than 6 minutes after
telling us to return to our seats to go back to the gate, we were in the air.
(FYI - there was no Wifi on the flight which meant our only source of information
for the rest of the flight was the El-Al crew.)
Four hours into the flight the Captain announced that "because of the
Charedim" the plane would stop in Athens. At which point, all the people
who want to get off for Shabbos can get off the plane first, and then, (and
here is the kicker), all the people who want to continue to Israel will also
have to get off the plane and go on a different plane from IsraAir to go to
What a shame
I wish El Al had announced the truth. We were stopping in
Athens because El-Al made a series of bad calls, and once they landed they could
not depart on Shabbos which is why they needed a non El-Al plane to continue
to Israel on Shabbos.
This only caused the internal tension to rise, as our only source of information
was the crew, who were less than helpful and not at all sympathetic. To be very
clear, no one was angry at the stewardesses, everyone understood that they did
not make the decisions. We were requesting to speak to the pilot or someone
who can speak for the pilot. Again, there were no attempts to break into the
cockpit, there were no physical altercations. Yes, there were some raised voices,
but most of the time (I have the videos showing) it was secular Israeli passengers
who came to yell at the passengers who were concerned about Shabbos that we
were ruining their weekend.
This in itself was absurd because we did not make the decision to stop in Athens
and the majority of the religious passengers preferred that we continue to Israel
and be stuck in the Tel Aviv airport.
As the minutes crept closer to our arrival into Athens there were discussions
on the plane about whether it was halachically better to stay on the plane or
to disembark in Athens. We had no clue what to expect. Would we stay in the
airport? Was there a hotel? What would we eat?
When they served breakfast I realized that the packaged egg which they served
for breakfast and the half a sandwich I had left from when I boarded the plane
could very well be all we had to eat on Shabbos. I even put some nuts into my
backpack for Shalosh Seudos [Seudat Shlishi -- the Third Shabbat
meal - towards the end of Shabbat].
When it was clear that we were landing in Athens and we would begin our descent,
we returned to our seats. Many of us tried to separate our Muktza [forbidden-to-use-on-Shabbat]
items and to make sure our Tallis [prayer shawl] and Siddur [prayer
book] were easily accessible.
After the plane landed and we stopped, we disembarked on one of those rollaway
staircases to get onto one of several shuttles. I was one of the first people
onto the shuttle and I watched as dozens of more Yidden [Jews] came off
the plane with no other thought than, to stay on the plane would be chillul
[a profanation of] Shabbos, and that getting off the plane was the best chance
of keeping Shabbos.
Chasidim got off the plane, as well as men with black hats, colored shirts,
in t-shirts, and in suits; women with sheitels, [wigs], snoods, or no
hair-covering; in skirts or in pants; everyone [150-plus people] coming off
the plane was united in one thing - We believe in G-d [the Creator] and His
Torah, and Shabbos was our gift from Him and our inheritance and we would uphold
As the first shuttle was full and started towards the airport (there were more
shuttles behind us) everyone broke into a song for Shabbos Kodesh [the
Once we got to the airport we were met by a woman from El Al who was very sweet.
She took the time to explain to us that we were would be staying across the
street (literally) at a hotel and they would take us as soon as the other shuttles
As they led us into the hotel it was very chaotic. There were four hotel clerks
and [a shuttle load of] people started surging towards the front desk. At that
point, one Rabbi, whom I later learned was Rabbi Akiva Katz, yelled above the
crowd and explained to everyone that we would need to create orderly lines in
order not to overwhelm the clerks. He also let us know that they had set aside
a place for davening (prayer) and that Chabad [House of Athens staff]
had prepared food. This helped reduce the stress in the room and the process
became more orderly as people were focused on getting to their rooms and ready
for Shabbos in the 40 minutes we had left till sunset.
Walking into Kabbalas Shabbos (the "welcoming the Shabbat"
prayers -- I was late) was beautiful. The room was full of 60 or 70 men and
about 10 women and everyone was singing. Rabbi Jesse Horn from Yeshiva Ateres
Kohanim led Kabbalas Shabbos. We were all so happy to be able to keep Shabbos,
and the davening and level of simcha (joy) was very high. I think
we must have danced four or five times during Kabbalas Shabbos and Maariv [Evening
After Kabbalas Shabbos we walked through the hotel to the dining area and I
can tell you with 100% conviction that what I saw was beyond anything I could
85% of the dining area was reserved for our Shabbos meal. The tables were set
beautifully with bottles of wine, grape juice and challah rolls. [The area]
where the hotel usually displayed its salad bars and assortment of cold meats
it was now filled with platters of gefilte fish and 6 or 7 large bowls with
a variety of salads and dips, it was as if this had planned for weeks in advance.
There was plenty of meat for the main course and an assortment of side dishes
to accompany it.
The Seudah [meal] was beautiful and everyone sang zemiros [songs]
and niggunim [melodies] and there were many Divrei Torah [short
speeches of Torah explanation]. Several people had stopped at the Duty Free
store to get bourbon and scotch for the crowd, and it was very leibedig
[lively] and the singing went on for quite a while.
I woke up several times during the night as my body was still on NY time, and
each time I went downstairs to the lobby there were people learning [Torah]
together or talking about the Parsha [Weekly Torah Reading[.
Shacharis [the Morning Prayer] was another beautiful davening
and it was interesting to see how it was a mix of Sefard, Sefardi and Ashkenaz
Nusachim [text and prayer-order variations].
After all the prayers were completed, several people went to the kitchen to
help Rabbi and Rebbetzin Hendel (the Chabad Shluchim [emissaries] in
Athens) prepare for the Shabbat Day meal.
There were also two classes being taught -- one in Hebrew, and one in English
by Rabbi Yossi Baumol.
After the teachers finished we went to the dining room where, like the previous
night, there were copious amounts of delicious food, [including] a wonderful
meat kugel wrapped in pastry, brisket, and a large assortment of salads.
Unlike the previous night, where everyone sat next to people who were closest
to them in their style of mitzvah-observance, the seating during the
Shabbos Day meal was heterogeneous. Chasidim sat and schmoozed [conversed]
with Zionists, Modox [Modern Orthodox] sat with the black hatted
use these labels so you can visualize the seating, but there were no labels
at this Shabbos meal, we sat in true achdus [unity]).
The rest of Shabbos and the subsequent trip back to the airport and our return
flight to Israel was unremarkable, so I don't need to bore you with the details.
First I would like to thank the following people.
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.
[Menachem-Mendel] and Rebbetzin [Nechama-Dina] Hendel, the Chabad Rabbi and
Rebbetzin based in Athens, Greece. They got the call at 11am Friday morning
and by 4pm that same afternoon they had prepared a beautiful Shabbos for 150+
adults which was not lacking in anyway.
My 150+ new friends and passengers who gave me an experience and Shabbos I
will never forget.
Now a quick note to El-AL: I don't know who handles your marketing and social
media program but you wasted a huge opportunity. Next time this happens, here
is what you do. You make sure you get a similar hotel and that Chabad sets up
a beautiful Shabbos. You hire a local photographer and video guy, you video
the amazing Shabbos - and then you promote it as an "El-Al sponsored Shabbos
of Unity." If you need more advice feel free to call or email me, or just
send me some tickets as a thank you.
I would like to leave off with a few thoughts having just spent one of the
most amazing Shabbos of my life.
1. 150+ Jews from all backgrounds and religious orientations, wearing every
outfit possible, walked off a plane with one thought - We will keep Shabbos,
even if it means sleeping in an airport.
2. Unlike our Great Grandparents, who were fired if they did not work on Shabbos
(USA), or where were ostracized, and possibly incarcerated for keeping Shabbos
(USSR). How often do we get a chance to be moser nefesh [sacrifice so
much] for Shabbos? This was a tremendous gift from 'Hashem' [G-d] to
us that we had the chance to show Him how much we love Him and His Torah, and
we ALL took it.
3. Every parent in that hotel who was not able to be home with their children
that Shabbos taught their child a lesson that they could not have taught them
in a 100 Shabboses at home. They showed that Shabbos means so much to Mommy
and Tatty [Daddy (Yiddish)], Ima and Abba [Mom & Dad]
(Hebrew), etc that they would walk off a plane in the middle of a foreign country
with no guaranty of food or a place to sleep.
4. Yom Tov [the 'pilgrim' Festivals] in the Beis Hamikdash [Holy
Temple] was probably like this Shabbos. Jews from all over coming together for
G-d and his mitzvos. I hope to see all of my fellow passengers this Pesach
[Passover] bringing korbanos [the required offerings] to the Temple [in
May we be zocheh [have the merit] to see Mashiach [the Redeemer2
] and the return of the Beis Hamikdash.
With much love
1. Based on the Facebook posts of two non Shabbat-observant passengers. Times
of Israel, Israel International News, TV channel 2, etc. The latter two subsequently
printed contrary reports from the Shabbat observers in Athens.
of the Jewish people from their places of exile throughout
the world. ('Moshiach' is short for 'Melech HaMoshiach' - the anointed king
who traces his descent from King David.]
Source: Edited, annotated and supplemented by Yerachmiel
Tilles. [The original article by Ben Chefetz was first posted on the Arutz Sheva
English site and the Col Live chabad site.] Photo from the blog of Betzalel
Editor's note (from collive.com): In gratitude, many
passengers donated to Chabad in Athens contributions ranging from $200 t0 $10,000
(!), to enable them to build a new mikvah. The total was enough to cover all
of the costs.
From the blog of Betzalel Steinhart, as posted on the "Times of Israel"
I am writing this as a response to the articles posted on the news and social
media of violence on El Al 002 from JFK. I was on that flight and as I type
this, I am in Athens airport waiting to board my [Saturday night, November 17,]
11:30 p.m. flight back to Tel Aviv.
I am not Haredi, just a religious man who keeps Shabbat, and neither were most
of the 200 of us who got off the plane in Athens rather than desecrate Shabbat.
Maybe 20 percent Haredi at most. The Chabad here were fantastic and a potentially
horrible Shabbat was memorable.
I will eventually get home and I will proudly tell my kids that I chose to
go to Athens and miss them, rather than break Shabbat. I will relay that same
message to my Ramah Israel students in the future. I will be writing my own
blog post about the actual Shabbat when I have the time. In the meantime, I'm
still in line.
Shavua tov from Athens
3. A lot of (mostly justified?) criticism of how
the El Al airline company handled the situation. Plus, a few more illuminating
photos from Athens.
Tilles is co-founder and associate director of Ascent-of-Safed, and chief editor
of this website (and of KabbalaOnline.org). He has hundreds of published stories
to his credit, and many have been translated into other languages. He tells
them live at Ascent nearly every Saturday night.
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