After a hectic tour throughout the US that brought me to six states and countless schools, I was happy to set out on my final trip, driving from Baltimore to Newark, to make my flight back home to Israel. After being gone for more than two weeks, it was more than time to come back home. I arrived at my gate and made myself comfortable, as I had a good 90 minutes before my plane was ready to board. During my time sitting at the gate, I had the opportunity to observe many other families who were either returning home to Israel, or who were coming to Israel for the holidays. I thought to myself that this was going to be a pretty ordinary flight back to Israel. Well, I always seem to have the “fortune” of being in the middle of controversy.
As the passengers were boarding the plane, two Charedi men took their seats. The first person was sitting at the window, while his friend had the aisle seat. At that point, the middle seat was empty. About twenty minutes later, a young woman showed up to take her seat, which as it turned out was in between the two Charedi passengers. What happened next, may not be surprising to some, but bothered me greatly.
The man sitting in the aisle seat refused to get up so this young woman could take her seat. Now, let’s be honest; she wanted to sit there about as much as they wanted her there. She asked about switching seats, and the flight attendants informed everyone involved that the flight was full. They again asked the Charedi passenger to get up so the woman could sit down. He flat out refused, and the exchange between him and the flight crew was about to become very heated. I was observing this incident quietly from my aisle seat two rows back. As this woman was being denied her basic right to sit in the seat for which she paid, I realized that no one had sat in the middle seat next to me. So, without thinking twice, I invited the young woman to come and take the empty seat next to me, which ended up diffusing this tense situation. The young woman thanked me several times, and settled into her new seat. Just then, the Charedi passenger’s friend turned to me and said, “thank you for helping my friend.” Well, I almost lost it right then and there. I was ready to give both this man and his friend a piece of my mind. Did they really think I was trying to help the guy who refused to let the woman into her seat? After collecting my thoughts, and regaining my composure, I turned to the friend and explained that I did not do anything to help his friend. In fact, I thought his friend behaved in a shameful manner. I went on to ask the friend how much Gemara he and the other man learn on the average day. He answered that they learn at least 7-9 hours, and often even more. So calmly, I suggested that perhaps more emphasis be spent on learning the principles of “Ben Adam LaChavero” loosely translated as how we treat our fellow people. I asked if he thought that refusing to allow a passenger access to her seat was the right message to be giving before Rosh Hashanah. The friend had no response. I almost felt badly for him, as I could tell his brain was about to explode as he was trying to figure out a retort. I just said to him, “well there’s something to think about over the next two weeks.” At that point I put in my headphones and he, very uncomfortably went back to his book, probably wishing he had never said anything to me.
As all of this was going on, the young woman next to me was listening to my conversation in shock. As soon as it was over, she thanked me again. We began talking and she actually had a very interesting personal story. She had finished her army service, and decided to spend a month visiting the United States. She told me about all the places she visited including New York, Los Angeles, and of course Las Vegas. The woman told me that she was raised in a very secular household. They did keep some basic level of kosher, because that it was her parents were taught. Besides that though, she really did not practice any Jewish traditions. When I asked her what she was planning for Rosh Hashanah, she immediately answered, “The beach. What else?” The woman went on to tell me that she had no interest in most of the Jewish tradition, because she “didn’t want to end up like one of those.” By this point, she was pointing to the Charedi men with whom she had interacted earlier. Of course, I tried to explain that not all observant people were like that. I showed her a picture of my family and I told her some funny Aliyah stories from the past. She said though that while growing up, it was the Chareidim that pointed the fingers and flung the insults. Her family did not want any part of it.
This young woman’s story really upset me. As an observant Jew, I do not want to be represented by people who do not know how to treat others with basic respect. Of course, it is unfair to say that every Charedi person would have behaved in the same unacceptable manner. I have Charedi friends who I would like to think would have behaved differently. This woman however, clearly had an opinion, and the Charedi passenger in her original row did nothing to change this generalization. My great Uncle Lenny A”H, used to complain about how too many frum Jews didn’t observe the basic mitzvot of “Derech Eretz” and moral behavior. He used to get very upset when money collectors would come to his door in Queens asking for charity. He would always ask them, “what do you do to earn a day’s wage?” If the collector gave a reasonable answer, Uncle Lenny would give him a nice chunk of change. If though, the answer was “I learn,” the collector would leave empty handed, usually with some “mussar” to take along. Uncle Lenny’s father (my great-grandfather) was a community Rabbi who gave his life to “Tikun Olam” (making the world a better place). He was famous for helping anyone in the community, regardless of whether they were Jewish. He never said an unkind word about anyone. You may agree or disagree with Uncle Lenny’s approach, but his point was clear. This plane passenger may have been a Talmudic scholar, but he was missing the basic traits that are so vital to our way of life.
As the trip continued, my new seat mate and I talked a lot about Judaism and her experiences. I tried to convince her to keep an open mind. I am not too sure I was successful, but at least I was able to change her view of observant Jews, even just a little bit.
Now, imagine if that passenger with the aisle seat had let her sit down, or had arranged an alternative that worked for everyone involved. This young woman would have had her first positive interaction with a Charedi Jew. The new year is almost here. It’s not about how much we learn. It’s about the types of people we strive to become.