Out of the approximately 2,000 Yidden who visited the kever of the Rebbe Reb Elimelech, zt”l, in Lizhensk Friday, at least a half dozen who ended up landing on Shabbos and spending the day at an airport hotel will remember it forever.
Taking an early Friday morning flight from Poland back to New York seemed for six yungeleit like a safe method of being able to daven at the tziyun for the yahrtzeit Friday while still being able to spend Shabbos back home with their families.
The plan, one of the participants told Hamodia, is one he will never do again.
The troubles began already in Poland, when one of their cars flipped over on a sharp turn and another got stuck in mud. It continued through their trip, and into their return home Motzoei Shabbos — when one car got a flat tire and another arrived home to a sewer backup.
One passenger, who spoke on condition he would not be named, said that this was his fifth consecutive year traveling to Lizhensk for the yahrtzeit on 21 Adar of the Rebbe Reb Meilech, as he is known among chassidim.
He left Warsaw on a 6:30 Friday morning Delta flight to John F. Kennedy International Airport, with a scheduled stop in Amsterdam. Two other Jews were with him on his flight. In addition, there was one frum Jew on an Air France flight that would be making a stop in Paris and two on a Lufthansa flight with a stop in Frankfurt.
All three flights were due to land in New York’s JFK at about 12:50 p.m. later that day. Shabbos was at 5:19.
At 12:50, his plane was already circling over New York and the captain asked passengers to fasten their seatbelts for landing.
But at a minute to landing time, the pilot announced over the PA system that due to a thick fog they would not be able to land at JFK. Even worse for the three Jews on board, since the plane was low on fuel, they were diverted to Syracuse, about an hour’s airtime away.
The problem with Syracuse, they were told, is that it was not an international airport so they had only a single customs agent. Since they could not accommodate 220 passengers, they were not prepared to process anyone.
The plane landed in Syracuse’s Ithaca Tompkins Regional Airport at about 2 o’clock. The door was opened for about five minutes just to give the pilot paperwork to fill out, but nobody, not even the pilot, was allowed off.
Meanwhile, the Air France flight with two Jews aboard were diverted to Baltimore and the Lufthansa flight with one Jew was sent on to Bangor, Maine.
And from their respective locations, the six men burned the phone lines trying to get an allowance to get off the plane before Shabbos.
“We reached out to every single askan out there,” the passenger said.
The passenger in Baltimore did get some help from the airline, who arranged for the Jewish community to host him. But in the end, the TSA did not allow him off the flight.
The man told Hamodia that while waiting in Syracuse — he was on the ground for about three hours — he called a friend to pick up food from his house and bring it to a hotel inside JFK.
“I knew that I wasn’t going to be sleeping on the floor in the airport, and that I would have food waiting for me, and that there would be a customs agent waiting to take me through right away,” he said. “In the end, that didn’t happen.”
The flights finally got clearance for takeoff and landing in New York and lifted off at about 5:15. They landed in JFK at about 6:25 .
Their wives were unaware the entire Shabbos what was happening, and they had to deal with halachic problems from the beginning.
Were they allowed to take the AirTrain to their hotel? Did they have to fast if they did not take the train and they did not get any food? One Rav said yes, another said no. They ended up spending Shabbos at the Hilton, which is located inside the airport perimeter. A friend, whom he called Eli L., brought food for them and spent Shabbos together with them.
About five minutes after Shabbos ended, the group left the airport, bound for Boro Park.
“It was an experience,” the man said.