Passengers on what started out as direct El Al flight LYO2 to Israel from New Yorkarrived safely back in Israel early Sunday after a Shabbos-long diversion in Athens that gave 150 at-first extremely disgruntled travelers the bonding experience of a lifetime and the Chabad-Lubavitch emissaries of the city the chance to strut their stuff.
After much pandemonium due to reportedly mixed messages from El Al about the cause of what turned out to be a more than a three-hour delay on the tarmac at JFK Airport on Thursday evening, the plane took off, despite the requests of many passengers to disembark for fear the flight would not make it to Tel Aviv before Shabbat.
The watchful passengers eventually did disembark prior to their scheduled destination, but not until hours later, when El Al announced that the flight would not, in fact, make Tel Aviv in time for Shabbat, and so diverted the plane to Athens.
While the decision caused some further confusion and consternation about how Shabbat would be kept in Athens on about an hour’s notice, the story for the most part at that point began to turn from worry and concern to relief and calm —and even elation for at least one of the passengers featured in a social-media post.
“This is going to be one of the most exciting, beautiful Shabbats ever,” said the jubilant man in a video posting standing among smiling fellow passengers in the baggage-claim area in Athens. “I am spending it with Yidden from everywhere. Everyone’s chipping in together. It’s going to be beautiful. We have … well, whatever we have, it’s not about the food. It’s going to be about the ruchnius [‘spirituality’] and achdus [‘unity’]. It’s about 120 people who got off the plane to be shomer Shabbat, and that is what counts.”
The mood change, largely generated by the certainty of being able to keep the weekly Jewish holiday even under extenuating circumstances, was further evident on one of the transport buses shuttling some of the passengers from the airport to their Shabbat destination.
There, mostly Chassidic passengers could be seen in a video dancing while chanting one of the well-known sections of the Friday-evening prayers: “Those who observe the Shabbat and call it a delight shall rejoice in Your Kingship,” as the English translations goes.
‘Our Gift and Our Inheritance’
What the passengers didn’t know at that moment was what was waiting for them at the hotel that the airline had booked: a full-course Shabbat meal, prayer-hall accommodations and arrangements for customary Shabbat learning sessions, compliments of local Chabad emissaries Rabbi Mendel and Nechama Hendel. The couple, who have co-directed the Athens Chabad center since 2001, were alerted about the incoming flight and situation around 11 a.m. (Athens time) on Friday. By 4 p.m., they had put together a lavish Shabbat spread for what was actually more like 150 people, according to the account of another passenger.
The travelers from all Jewish backgrounds—held together by the mutual desire to keep the Shabbat—had been told only on the plane that Chabad would be helping out once they arrived in Athens. To their further relief upon entering the hotel lobby while frantically rushing the reception desk to check in—clock ticking—they learned from hotel personnel that Chabad had a full Shabbat meal and program planned.
One of those passengers was Shalom Lipner, former foreign-policy adviser to the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem and currently a non-resident senior fellow at the center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institute in Washington. He was on the flight with his wife, returning home to Israel after a trip involving a joyous occasion and business engagements.
Reflecting on the overall experience, he told Chabad.org: “Everyone was determined to make the best of things, which couldn’t have happened without Rabbi Mendel and Rebbetzin Nechama. People who would not normally have spent Shabbat together were suddenly thrust into an impossible situation that broke down barriers.”
Another passenger, Ben Chafetz, provided much detail about the whole flight and Shabbat stay that also focused on the theme of how Jews from far-flung factions came together under trying circumstances to create a positive experience.
“Chassidim had gotten off that plane—men with black hats, colored shirts, in T-shirts, in suits, women with sheitels and snoods [head coverings], no sheitels, in skirts, in pants,” related Chafetz. “Everyone coming off the plane was united in one thing: We believe in G‑d and Torah. Shabbat is our gift and our inheritance, and we would keep it.”
He described the atmosphere once everyone was settled in at the hotel and Shabbat prayers beginning with one word: “beautiful.”
“We were all so happy to be able to keep Shabbat, and the davening [‘praying’]and level of simcha [‘joy’] was very high.”
He added: “After Kabbalat Shabbat, we walked through the hotel to the dining area, and I can tell you with 100 percent conviction that what I saw was beyond anything I could have imagined.”
He reported that the vast majority of the dining area was reserved for the Shabbat meal—tables set with bottles of wine, grape juice and challah rolls. “Where the hotel usually displayed its salad bars and assortment of cold meats was now filled with platters of gefilte fish, and six or seven large bowls with a variety of salads and dips. It was as if it had been planned for weeks in advance.”
Anything but true.
It was the work of the Hendels, honed and talented from years of welcoming large groups of expected and unexpected guests, with the grace of Shabbat hospitality.
After being alerted about the incoming flight by an assistant of passenger Rabbi Shalom Ber Sorotzkin, who heads Yeshivas Ateret Shlomo of Beit Shemesh, and shortly after by the local El Al office, the Hendel’s kicked into action.
“We started getting organized bringing in our kitchen staff from the kosher restaurant we have, plus additional help, and assessed the situation,” Hendel said. “What we had, what can be prepared in that short amount of time, what’s in our freezer. We already had 130 guests planned at the Chabad House anyway, and we always make extra food for unexpected guests. We also took some of that.”
They also arranged for a Torah scroll, prayer books and Chumashim (copies of “the Five Books of Moses”), Shabbat candles, materials for the concluding of Shabbat prayer, called Havdalah, “and whatever else was necessary for a proper Shabbat,” said Hendel. With the help of El Al, the couple was also lodged in the airport hotel, the Sofitel, a 45-minute drive from their Chabad center in downtown Athens—for the Shabbat experience.
“People were so appreciative of how beautiful the Shabbat turned out that when they learned we are in the middle of a mivkah [ritual bath] building project, they really wanted to help,” added Hendel.
He said that Rabbi Akiva Katz, head of the United Kashrut Authority in Jerusalem, who was on the flight, made an impromptu fundraising effort to help complete the project, with Rabbi David Derli, who heads Tiferet Tiberias institutions in Tiberias, pledging a significant amount personally and encouraging others to help.
“If by Divine Providence you find yourselves in Athens, it’s to help accomplish something positive,” Derli said in his pitch about the project, being built with help from Keren Mikvaot and the Rabbinical Center of Europe.
It was not easy to say farewell to their impromptu guests after all that developed over Shabbat, though happenstance brings new situations of similar nature on a regular basis and there’s always more to look forward to, said Hendel. The couple, with the help of their staff, packed up and went home.
As for their guests, upon return from the trip on a flight that departed late Saturday night and landed only a bit delayed this time— 1:45 a.m. Sunday in Israel—the group belted out louder than usual the standard end-of-flight cheers, then broke into song again on the theme of Shabbat delight, shared Lipner.