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‘Please explain, I don’t understand how you are all so happy and singing?’

Some final reflections on El Al #002 to Athens, as I set aside blame and rejoice in the unusual sabbath I experienced

“Please explain, I don’t understand how you are all so happy and singing and dancing when you are here and not at your home.  Please can you tell me why?”

It was 18:05, minutes after Shabbat had gone out in Athens, in the Sofitel Hotel in Athens International Airport. The conversation was between me and Sophia, a puzzled but very courteous front desk manager at the hotel. The reason had been havdallah, the culmination of the singing throughout Shabbat tefillot and meals.

I will get to my answer to her…Yet I first want to backtrack.

So much has been written about the LY 002 Shabbat Athens landing, that I was on. Articles have been published, many of them scathing, attacking someone or some entity. Many written out of justified anger, like mine that I wrote on my phone in the airport after Shabbat, when reading what had been posted against us.

I want to tell a different side of this, now that I am – finally – home, having arrived at 3:15 a.m. I am calmer, and able to see the entire incident, understand the passions on all sides, and reflect, and reach a slightly different conclusion.

Firstly, I feel very bad for the crew of stewards and stewardesses, who were just trying to do their job, and had been brought late to the plane waiting in traffic for hours through no fault of their own, but due to a poor decision by their managers not to leave early due to the weather.  They were bearing the brunt of the shouts of anger from all sides — religious and irreligious — over a decision that hadn’t been theirs. I told them this as I got off the plane, as I saw their pain and frustration and knew they were not in the wrong and had had a really bad day — I hope I managed to comfort them somehow. Maybe they should have reacted better, but then again none of us is perfect.

I feel bad for the irreligious people, who had to wait a further three hours to get a plane home, and who missed out on the special Shabbat experience that I will never forget.

I feel bad that so many accusations continue to fly as I type this. I still feel El Al was in the wrong, but the airline, too, can make mistakes.

However, the aspect I keep coming back to, aside from the accusations of violence that I really, really hope were not true — if there is one thing we must learn it is that dialogue is the only way to resolve our disputes — is the above conversation.

To recap the situation: some 40 minutes before Shabbat was to come in, a swarm of about 180 religious Jews (maybe a quarter of whom would be classified as “Haredi”), most of us talking on the phone or texting with our families in Israel or the USA, descended on the Athens hotel.  Clutching our hand luggage, and for many of us a portion of the meal we had been served earlier, saved in case we had no food for Shabbat (I saved my omelet and roll; they were never eaten), and stealing glances at our watches as Shabbat crept ever closer, we were led into the lobby. The hotel and El Al representatives calmed us down by explaining that meals were taken care of, and that we should pair up in s twos or threes for rooms, and that we had nothing to worry about. There was not enough room for all of us, so approximately 30 people were taken to another hotel.

We found partners (mine were nice, though both snored), formed lines, received our keycards, and exchanged ideas on how to avoid using them on Shabbat (electronics are a problem for those who observe Shabbat).  I am a seasoned traveler, who has guided on numerous occasions for Ramah Israel in Poland, Prague, and Morocco, as well as having been in many a US hotel room for Shabbat, and shared my personal favorites: tape over or put toilet paper in the tab that the latch of the door fits into, or put a towel over the door, and make sure your valuables are in the safe.

Not that many of us had much to put there: I am sure you have heard the oft-used expression, especially before Shabbat, “I have literally nothing to wear”? This time, it was true – all I had were the clothes on my back, some food, and my tallit and tefillin – all the rest of my emergency clothes that I always take with me in case of such a situation had been checked in when the nice operator at the El Al counter in JFK offered to check my rolling hand luggage for free. Kicking myself for doing that, I sprinted back to the airport and found a store selling white Athens souvenir t-shirts, and socks with for some unknown reason, San Francisco emblazoned on them. Once the t-shirt was turned inside out, I had my Shabbat shirt.

Thus bedecked in splendor, I went to Kabbalat Shabbat, missing my family, and with some trepidation over the upcoming Shabbat.

Most of my new comrades were similarly dressed. The lifelike statue at the top of the stairs, that seemed to be a distortion of Michelangelo’s David (made from fake granite, facing the other way and with hand outstretched, but still totally nude), that many were avoiding looking at, seemed to reinforce my fears that this was going to be a strange Shabbat.

Yet, it was strange, but in a wonderful, marvelous, unifying spiritual manner.  One of my new friends, Ben Chafetz, wrote a beautiful piece describing Shabbat that I encourage you to read. It was truly remarkable what Chabad in Athens had done at the last minute, in terms of warm hospitality, abundance of food, a Sefer Torah, and other logistical preparations – many of us gave a donation after Shabbat for a mikveh that doesn’t exist there by way of thanking them.  Equally remarkable was the hotel staff and management, who went out of their way to help us.  Despite my criticism of El Al in my first piece on this that I stand by, they did their best to provide for us once the decisions had been made and the mistakes by others left in the past, and that is worthy of praise as well.

Everyone there had their own sob story of what they were missing in Israel – I hadn’t seen my wife and kids in two weeks, but there were worse stories: a few bar mitzvahs that people were missing, an aufruf, the family gathering at a yahrtzeit, and sadly, one woman who told me that the body of her mother had been in the belly of flight LY002, on its way to burial in Israel, and she had no idea what had happened with it over Shabbat. Perspective can be a wonderful thing.

Yet: we all breathed deeply and let Shabbat work its magic. The most remarkable thing was the atmosphere, that 150 Jews from all walks of life, wearing the strangest Shabbat outfits and bringing a vast plethora of Shabbat traditions to the shul and table, created, without a decision-making process on behalf of anyone.

The Kiddush Hashem was awesome — singing in the different accents, dancing with strangers, divrei torah and shiurim — the atmosphere we created together was one of Simchat Shabbat. The heat-warming breaking down of any barriers due to the circumstances was invigorating, caused many unexpected friendships, and broke stereotypes for us all that hopefully will not be rebuilt. Seeing all these Jews who would probably never have said anything to each other simply because of what the other was wearing, in conversations around tables or in the lobby, was inspiring.  How beautifully ironic that none of this atmosphere was captured to show, because all those creating it were religious and could not use cameras or phones.

There is a saying: You don’t control the situations you are in, but you do control how you react to them” – and that was demonstrated perfectly.  None of us chose to be there, yet we made the best of the situation, and kept a Shabbat that none of us will ever forget.

In the afternoon I went for a walk — sadly the airport is too far from the real sites, so that will have to wait for the next time I am there — ending up on the top floor of the airport where there is a small, free museum that I highly recommend if you are ever there — a collection of what had been found while building the airport. Similar to Israel, Greece has a vast amount of archaeology and immense finds in every nook and cranny, and it was very special looking at coins and pottery made in the second century BCE — as in, exactly the Chanukah time period. I even found myself getting emotional when I realized that here was an Israeli, a tour guide who teaches about Jewish values — then and now, stuck in Greece because he insisted on keeping Shabbat, looking at coins minted during the time that the Ancient Greeks tried to crush Ancient Israel for the “crime” of doing exactly that, and in a few days will be celebrating that holiday back in Israel.

One of the divrei Torah that was given in the shul was a thought I have given many times myself to students. Briefly, the parshat hashavua (Torah portion) we read — Vayetzei — has in it the verse where our Matriarch Leah named her fourth son Judah, meaning “I will thank G-d”; the root “odeh” being the same as “todah,” meaning thanks. If you follow that thought, our name, Jews, means thank you. That, too was a key element of Shabbat — thanking everyone who had made it.

So: after Havdallah, I made it my business to thank every one of the hotel workers that I saw, as did many of us.  As I was doing that, Sophia, the desk manager, asked me in her broken English, what I wrote above:

“Please explain, I don’t understand how you are all so happy and singing and dancing when you are here and not at your home. Please can you tell me why?”

The conversation is too long to write in full, but I explained to her what Shabbat was, and told her a bit about the rituals and theology, answered her follow up questions, quoted to her Asher Ginsburg’s famous saying, “More than the Jewish people have kept the Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept the Jewish people,” and she was nodding politely, but clearly not getting it.

So I added one more thought, that I think she liked, and it is a thought that I am taking with me as this saga continues to swirl:  Shabbat is, amongst other values, about Kehilla, community, togetherness, about taking time to be with one’s family and friends, and about creating and strengthening community. (As was put to me by my new friend Mitch – who lives 5 minutes from me, but whom I had to come to Athens to meet — Shabbat is the time for shmoozing, so let’s schmooze!)

This week, I told Sophia, you saw a new Jewish community create itself under conditions that were beyond its control to alter, but were within its control to use and benefit from. The singing and dancing came from that yearning to strengthen our bonds to our belief and our community, in the same way that Shabbat has done for so many centuries in other conditions.  I have made many friends that I hope I will stay in touch with, and hopefully allowed one desk manager named Sophia to get an inkling into Shabbat in Judaism.

One final thought. Community, like family, is close enough that arguments and disagreements are inevitable from time to time — that is the nature of the beast. Our task, like in the conversation over our flight, is to combat that inclination to let our arguing overtake us and the poison continue to flow, and to end the arguing by listening to the other and understanding them.

I, for one, am done with blame. We were in Athens for a reason, I will always remember that Shabbat, and life is now continuing.

About the Author
Betsalel Steinhart is a Licensed Tour Guide, and the Director of Education for Ramah Israel. He is privileged to live in Jerusalem with his wife and five children.
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