FIRST PERSON ACCOUNT: El Al Fiasco Ends in Display of Achdus, Kiddush Hashem on Shabbos in Athens

A general view of Athens, Greece. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Speaking on Sunday morning to a passenger of the El Al flight, Rabbi Yisrael Halberstam of Yerushalayim, a blow-by-blow account of the story as he experienced it emerged.

Rabbi Halberstam is the head of Mosdos Zhemigrad in Eretz Yisrael and founder and CEO of Merkaz Yedid Nefesh.

Ahead of the Flight

Snow began to fall and accumulate early Thursday afternoon in New York. I called El Al several times, and they kept saying the flight will be leaving on time. However, the did specify to be in the airport on time, due to the weather. I left Boro Park four hours before the flight.

When we came to the airport, we saw the flight was from Terminal 4. In the terminal, the screens showed all the other flights delayed without a new time, or canceled. There were only two flights that were still showing that they were leaving on time: One was our El Al flight and the other to San Jose in California.

After check-in – with the screens still showing the flight on time – we went straight to the gate. At 6:15 p.m., boarding still hadn’t begun. From the window at the gate, we saw our presumed plane and then suddenly it left the gate. Finally, at 6:40 they posted that the flight would be leaving late because in needed de-icing. The El Al staff said that at about 7:30 we would start boarding, we would leave 8:30 and we’d get to Israel at 2 p.m., with Shabbos beginning several minutes after 4 p.m. local time.

To me it seemed unbelievable; 400 other flights were delayed, how could they even claim that our flight would leave on time? It seems they knew upfront that we wouldn’t be able to take off on time.

Finally we boarded the plane, and after 10 p.m., the shomrei Shabbos passengers asked to disembark, realizing we wouldn’t make it on time for Shabbos. We were reassured, in the name of pilot, that we would make it on time for Shabbos.

And just to make it clear about the false claim that “hundreds of chareidim on the flight went violent” – we were a group of 169 passengers that remained over Shabbos in Athens. Of them, about 20 were traditional chareidi; all the rest were fromother streams of Klal Yisrael.

At 11:50 p.m. the pilot said we were going back to gate. And then he turned around and suddenly took off!

During the Flight – Confusion and Chaos

When the plane settled after the abrupt takeoff, the pilot announced that we’d make it on time for Shabbos, landing time at 4:24 p.m., 20 minutes before shkiah. He also said that he’d try to catch up  and arrive earlier.

After two hours into the flight the screens showed the landing time as 3:10 p.m. To me that sounded too good to be true. I took a closer look at the screen and saw that the destination was… Athens. At the time, the stewardesses denied it. Three hours later they finally confirmed it… And of course, that caused a huge uproar on the plane.

I don’t think anyone can expect not to get upset if they hear that they’ll be arriving in Athens instead of home. There was a lot of  disappointment, anger and raised voices, from all sides – the shomrei Shabbos, as they didn’t know what they’d do for Shabbos, and the non-shomer Shabbos, as they just wanted to get home.

Until then, the pilot didn’t say a word and apparently, the staff didn’t know  what was going on. Then, after all the ruckus, the staff was told to sit down and stop attending to the passengers.

The next announcement from the pilot – who had been quiet for the past few hours – was that we would be landing in Athens in a few minutes and everyone should fasten their seat belts.

We knew that El Al needed this plane for Motzoei Shabbos flights in Israel, so perhaps that was why they needed to get to Athens.

And so, the plane landed, and the non-shomer Shabbos passengers continued on to Israel on the Israir flight. Our original plane flew to Israel on Friday night, with blatant chillul Shabbos.

Shabbos in Athens

One positive thing I can talk about is the Shabbos in Athens. It was a remarkable Shabbos, a Shabbos to remember.

While El Al told us during the flight that they had arranged Shabbos for us, that was simply another lie on their long list of fables.

As I mentioned before, after announcing that the new destination was Athens, the pilot stopped any further assistance or announcements. When we disembarked in Athens, he finally found his voice again and tried to cover up,  claiming that they had really thought all along that the plane would arrive in Israel on time. He even tried  to give us mussar,  quoting, “Derech eretz kadmah l’Torah.” Thanks, but no thanks.

Some of the passengers apologized to the stewardesses on the way out for the ruckus that had taken place on the plane.The stewardesses didn’t accept the apologies and lashed out at them instead.

Contrary to El Al’s claims, the local Chabad House only got the call that 169 people would be coming for Shabbos at 2 p.m. Yes, only after we had landed!

In addition, they had told us they had booked rooms for all the passengers – which turned into another mess. They booked 80 rooms at the Airport Hotel – for 169 passengers! Later they booked other rooms at the Holiday Inn.

But the Shabbos itself was unforgettable. Yes, we were wearing our weekday clothes, as our luggage went straight on to Israel on the next flight. Some passenger had their shtreimels in their hand luggage, so they were wearing their weekday jackets with their shtreimels. I told someone there, bigdei Shabbos is of course the best – but this week, wearing our regular clothes is the biggest sign of shemiras Shabbos.

The tefillos, the meals – what achdus! During the meals, we heard a number of drashos all highlighting the achdus we witnessed, with one of the darshanim saying that there are two places were people disregard all outer differences and daven together in one minyan: in the hospital or in the airport. A true Kiddush Hashem, sheves achim gam yachad. We had such uplifting Shabbos seudos, the time and the food that we had or didn’t have was completely irrelevant.

We need to give a special thanks to Chabad, notably Rabbi Mendel Hendel. We later learned that aside for taking care of us, Chabad also hosted 130 others at their Chabad House. Amazing!

On Shabbos, we heard that the local Chabad House had been fundraising to build a mikveh. We held an appeal and the numbers reached – I haven’t heard it confirmed, but this is the talk – were in the range of $140,000. Who knows, perhaps this is the reason we were stuck in Athens for Shabbos. Hashgachah pratis.

Leaving Athens – Not All That Easy

As is known, checkout time from hotels is generally midday. Because it was Shabbos, we had special permission to remain until 6 p.m. And once again, those who keep Rabbeinu Tam zman (6:30 p.m.) were helped by the others.

Finally, after Shabbos, we went back to the airport. The flight was scheduled to depart at 11:30 p.m,. but the El Al tickets we were given were useless. Each ticket had to be handwritten, taking an extra 15 minutes for each passenger. And then there was a gate change… The plane was a 737 plane, and after the first few passengers had taken their seats there was no more room for hand luggage.

We finally took off at about midnight, landed in Israel at 1:40 a.m., and were told where to find our luggage. Due to the rainy weather in Israel on Friday night, most of the luggage was soaked through. Why it wasn’t placed inside is beyond me, but it was just another part of the ongoing fiasco. Baruch Hashem, my luggage was dry.

We all signed for a class-action suit, and we hope to see some results.

As I said earlier, maybe this all  happened so that we could help the Chabad House finish the mikveh and spend Shabbos with so many people we never knew and would never would think to spend Shabbos with – it was all worth it.


Hamodia asked El Al for a response; when we will receive one we will be happy to publish it.

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