Hijacked! TWA Flight 741 Revisited After 50 Years

Harav Yitzchak Hutner, zt”l.

An exclusive talk with Rabbanit [Carole] Raful and her family, survivors of the hijacking.

Sukkos 5731 (1970). The talmidim gathered in the sukkah as they had every year, waiting anxiously for Harav Yitzchak Hutner, zt”l, the Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivah Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin, to impart his maamar, the exalted words of machshavah that he shared with them during the Yamim Tovim. Tonight, the second night of Sukkos, was the Ushpizin of Yitzchak Avinu, and being that Rav Hutner shared his name, their anticipation was heightened. In light of what had transpired over the past few weeks, they understood that if they listened well, they would hear a lesson for the ages.


On September 6, 1970 (5 Elul, 5730), Harav Hutner was returning to America after having spent the summer in Eretz Yisrael along with some talmidim, setting the groundwork for establishing a yeshivah and kollel in Yerushalayim. In his youth, in the 1920s, Harav Hutner had learned in Yeshivas Chevron in Eretz Yisrael, and now he wanted to return after spending decades in America producing generations of talmidim. When he’d left Eretz Yisrael then, he’d written that Eretz Yisrael is acquired only through yissurim and since he had been there without yissurim, he felt he had only been there, lived there and seen the land — but he had not acquired it. In the future, he wrote, he hoped to acquire it as well.

The hijackers holding a news conference. The man in the background with the full black beard is Harav Yonasan David, shlita.

That day, Palestinian terrorists hijacked a total of four planes, with a fifth plane hijacked on September 9. The hijacking of one of the four planes, El Al Flight 219 from Amsterdam to New York City, was foiled when one of the hijackers was shot and killed, and his accomplice, Leila Khaled, was handed over to the authorities in London. TWA Flight 741 from Frankfurt and Swissair Flight 100 from Zurich were forced to fly to Dawson’s Field, a remote desert airstrip near Zarqa, Jordan, which had formerly served as a Royal Air Force Station. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) had renamed it “Revolutionary Airport,” and they diverted the commandeered airplanes to the site.

Two hijackers who were denied boarding the El Al flight hijacked the fourth plane, Pan Am Flight 93, first to Beirut and then to Cairo, rather than to the small Jordanian airstrip. On September 9, the fifth plane, BOAC Flight 775 from Bahrain, was hijacked by a PFLP sympathizer and taken to Dawson’s Field in order to pressure the British to free Khaled.

Harav Yonasan David, shlita.

The 310 hijacked passengers included Harav Yitzchak Hutner, zt”l, Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivah Rabbeinu Chaim Berlin in New York, along with Rebbetzin Masha Hutner, a”h; ybl”c, their son-in-law and daughter, Harav Yonasan David, shlita, Rosh Yeshivah of Pachad Yitzchak in Yerushalayim and Rebbetzin Bruria David, shetichyeh, Menaheles of Bais Yaakov Yerushalayim; Rav Hutner’s talmid, Harav Yaakov Drillman, shlita; Chacham Yosef Harari-Raful, shlita, Rosh Yeshivah of Ateret Torah and his family, including Rabbanit Carole and three children, Ron, Ezra and Rachel (Laniado); Chacham Abraham Harari-Raful, zt”l, brother of Chacham Yosef and Rav of Keter Torah in Brooklyn, along with, tbl”c, Rabbanit Esther and their children Aharon and Rachel (Shrem); and the matriarch, Rabbanit Rachel Raful, a”h.

A Harrowing Experience

Although the Palestinian captors were fully armed, they had not planned well for holding their captives for an extended period. Food and water were in short supply, as were diapers for the children. “I had to use napkins when we ran out of pampers,” Rabbanit Carole says. “I recall my husband, Chacham Yosef, discussing with Rav Hutner what foods we would be permitted to eat. I think I heard there was a disagreement over the hard-boiled eggs. This was at the forefront of their minds, despite the danger lurking about.” As for water, when they handed a cupful of water to Hacham Yosef one Erev Shabbos, he dipped his shirt into it to cleanse his clothing, in order to do something “likbod Shabbat.”

During the harrowing days of their captivity, Jews worldwide davened earnestly for the safe return of the passengers. In the United States, leaders with political connections inundated the White House with calls and telegrams, imploring President Richard Nixon to use all means to secure the safe return of the hostages. In the Syrian community in Brooklyn, people suggested they raise funds to pay a ransom for their beloved Rabbanim. Nouri Dayan, the father-in-law of Chacham Yosef, turned this down, saying, “It is far better to give the money to tzedakah as a zechut.” In addition, he wanted no special publicity, adding, “B’toch ami anochi yoshavet — I live amongst my people.”

Feeling the pressure, the hijackers began releasing the women and children. Rabbanit Rachel Raful, upon disembarking from the plane that brought her to New York, declared, “B’chol dor vador omdim aleinu l’chaloteinu v’Hakadosh Baruch Hu masileinu miyadam — In every generation they stand to destroy us, but Hakadosh Baruch Hu saves us from their hands.”

On September 12 (11 Elul), the hijackers emptied the three planes, which were still parked on the runway of Dawson’s Field, and publicly detonated explosives, completely destroying the three aircraft.

While the remaining passengers were being held, the hijackers realized that Harav Yitzchak Hutner was a leader of the Jewish world. They called him Chacham il’kabir, the great wise man. Although they generally treated him with respect, they did confiscate a satchel in which he kept his precious writings of chiddushei Torah that he had accumulated over his lifetime, and they did not return it upon his release. His close followers and associates went to great lengths to retrieve the chiddushim, offering financial rewards for their return. Although there were several instances when the intermediaries thought they might be successful, nothing materialized and the kesavim remain lost to this day.

Rav Hutner’s Release – and the Ensuing Maamar

Rav Hutner was released on September 26 (25 Elul). Upon his return to New York unharmed, he was greeted by a throng of talmidim who celebrated his arrival, although Hagaon Harav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, did not allow them to rejoice with music as planned because Chacham Yosef and Chacham Abraham were still in captivity.

While this would be the first year that Harav Hutner would not deliver a maamar before Rosh Hashanah, to the surprise of his talmidim, he did speak before tekios on Rosh Hashanah itself, something he had not done in the past. He spoke of yissurim and what yissurim shel ahavah are. During Aseres Yemei Teshuvah, he spoke of how yissurim eliminate sins. Without his mentioning any particulars, the talmidim understood the strands of his message.

The next week, as they gathered for the maamar in the sukkah, Rav Hutner spoke of the difference between Yishmael and Eisav. While Eisav merited an inheritance, as the passuk states, “Ki yerushah l’Eisav nasati es Har Seir — for I have given Mount Seir as an inheritance to Eisav” (Devarim 2:5), Eisav was granted some dominion of a monarch, as the passuk tells us, “Ul’om milom ye’ematz — And one regime will become strong from the other regime” (Bereishis 25:23). For this reason, his descendants are referred to as aluf, which the Gemara in Sanhedrin (99b) describes as “a monarch missing a crown.” Yishmael, on the other hand, was not granted an inheritance: “Lo yirash ben ha’amah hazos — The child of this maidservant will not inherit” (Bereishis 21:10). His descendants are merely referenced as “b’chatzreihem uv’tirosam — by their courtyards and by their strongholds” (ibid. 25:16). This signifies a deficiency in both leadership and ownership.

Yishmael never received a portion of his own, and as a result, he is filled with rage and jealousy, declaring, “Eretz Yisrael is mine!” This is the fury of the disinherited seeking to appropriate the inheritance from his relative. This, too, is the murderous anger that we see among his progeny regarding Eretz Yisrael.

Those who accompanied Harav Hutner during his captivity now understood what he had told them after meeting the leader of the PFLP terrorists. “His face had the majestic appearance of Yishmael, which is not found in the faces of Eisav. He had the specific character of Yishmael.” When pressed for an explanation, Rav Hutner cryptically replied, “By Yishmael, it does not say they were alufim.” When pressed further, he signaled that a further explanation would be forthcoming. Now, in the confines of the sukkah, the Rosh Yeshivah shared this explanation with them.

The Chachamim in Captivity Alone

Chacham Yosef Harrari-Raful, shlita.

While Rav Hutner was released several days before Rosh Hashanah, Chacham Yosef Harari-Raful and Chacham Abraham Harari-Raful, who had been separated from the rest of the passengers from the outset due to their Israeli citizenship, were not as fortunate. While they were isolated from the others, they were singled out for unusually cruel treatment, as the terrorists believed the Israeli government would pay dearly for their release.

“I recently shared something with my father, Chacham Yosef Harari-Raful, which reminded him of his feelings on that ill-fated flight half a century ago,” said Mrs. Rachel Laniado, who was a newborn infant at the time. “We had held a conference call for 12th-grade girls from around the country who were experiencing great disappointment. Their senior year was interrupted by the COVID pandemic, and they were apprehensive about their plans for seminary being upended as well. Schools arranged for a nationwide conference call where the girls were addressed by Harav Elya Brudny, shlita, and Harav Uren Reich, shlita.

“My father shared with me his feelings of that frightful time … It was the first time he mentioned this to me, and it gave me a new insight into the entire episode.

Chacham Abraham Raful, zt”l (left) and ybl”c Harav Yaakov Drillman, shlita, (right) at the bar mitzvah of Aharon Raful.

“‘I experienced tremendous disappointment myself,’ my father began. ‘After the terrorists separated me and my brother from the rest of the passengers, we were constantly in danger of being killed at any moment. One time, my brother, Chacham Abraham, overheard the terrorists speaking in Arabic, which he understood, saying that we were going to be freed, and our hopes were raised for our imminent release. They drove us around for hours, and in the end, we were not set free. The disappointment was crushing. From that point on, I had to employ tremendous gevurat henefesh not to get excited the next time they mentioned that we would be free. The possibility of facing the tremendous disappointment another time was just too much to bear.’”

When Chacham Yosef and Chacham Abraham were separated from the other passengers and told to disembark from the plane, Chacham Abraham decided to take his tefillin at the last second, fearing that he would not be allowed to return to the plane. As he turned back to retrieve them, he was ordered not to; indeed, for the next 23 days, he was not able to put on tefillin, which weighed heavily on his mind throughout his ordeal.

Handwritten notes of Chacham Abraham Harrari-Raful, zt”l, bemoaning that he was not able to don his tefillin during his captivity.

In his memoirs, Chacham Abraham wrote, “I pleaded with them that they should allow my tefillin to be sent from the airplane. They assured and assured and assured, but they did not fulfill what they promised. We were left to pray without our tefillin for 23 straight days, which agitated us greatly. But it is not possible to debate with those who have no comprehension. It seems this was the will of Hakadosh Baruch Hu.”

The wives of Chacham Yosef and Chacham Abraham anticipated their pain at not having their tefillin. “I knew that my husband would want desperately to have them, and I wanted to send them with the terrorist,” Rabbanit Raful remembers. “I asked Harav Hutner if I was permitted to send them, and he ruled that if there was a possibility that they would be desecrated, I should not do it. After some deliberation, I realized the risk was too great and we abandoned the plan.” [In Igros Moshe (OC 1:4), Harav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, writes that Harav Hutner asked if it is permissible to bring tefillin into a hospital for infectious diseases where they may eventually be burned to prevent the spread of infection; Harav Moshe ultimately prohibited it. Perhaps this played a role in Harav Hutner’s ruling. — BZK]

Chacham Yosef and Chacham Abraham were isolated for most of the time, and as Rosh Hashanah approached, they began to worry that they would be spending the Yamim Nora’im in captivity. In preparation, they began reviewing by heart all the tefillos, as they wanted ensure they would be able to daven properly in the event they were not released by then. The review was long and thorough, and when they completed it, Chacham Yosef suggested to his brother that they begin reviewing the tefillos of Yom Kippur as well. With a sigh, Chacham Abraham replied, “I don’t have the koach to worry about Yom Kippur yet.” At another point, Chacham Yosef was wondering what they would use for simanim on the night of Rosh Hashanah. He saw a potato and whimsically said, “Sheyepapetu oiveinu — that our enemies should become chatter-like” (i.e., insignificant).

The Chachamim Come Home

Chacham Yosef and Chacham Abraham were finally freed and sent home on Erev Rosh Hashanah. Candle-lighting was at 6:20 p.m., and they were scheduled to land at Kennedy Airport at 5:50 p.m. Harav Moshe Feinstein issued a psak that, b’di’eved, they could do melachah until 6:55. Arrangements were made for them to stay near the airport if they could not make it home and meals, machzorim and a shofar, were prepared.

The police offered to arrange a helicopter to fly them to Brooklyn and land at Friends Field, located at Avenue L and East 5th Street. Chacham Yosef declined, and a police escort was arranged to rush them home instead. Chacham Yosef and Chacham Abraham arrived home at 6:25, and the first thing they did, even before bathing for Yom Tov, was don their tefillin, a mitzvah for which they’d pined for over three weeks. Then they quickly showered and headed off to “the Dome,” the main sanctuary in Congregation Shaarei Zion.

Chacham Abraham entered first, and was greeted with a standing ovation. When Chacham Yosef came in a few minutes later, the congregants gave him a standing ovation as well lasting 15 minutes. The Rabbanim were home, safe and sound.

Still Grateful – 50 Years Later

“When I got married,” says Mrs. Rachel Laniado, “my father spoke emotionally at my sheva brachot, expressing his thanks for extricating our family safely from the mouth of the lion. I was but an infant, but I feel tremendous gratitude to Hashem for leading our family to safety.

“A few days before we left Israel, a cousin of Chacham Yosef came to visit and informed him that he had a dream that it was not safe for him to travel back to America on that plane,” Rabbanit Carole recalls. “My husband answered emphatically, ‘Tamim tehiyeh im Hashem Elokecha (Devarim 18:3). Rashi says that we should not ponder the future. We don’t use dreams to make decision in our lives.’ After our ordeal ended, he said many times that if faced with the same predicament, he would do exactly the same as he had done then. I was scared to fly on a plane for the next 12 years. My husband flies, and he has complete bitachon in Hashem.”

It has been a yovel since the hijacking of TWA Flight 741. “I am just filled with gratitude to Hashem for the hashgachah pratit, and for all He has done for the family, then and always,” Rabbanit Carole says humbly. “That, I think, is the lesson we have carried with us and which others can learn from as well.”