Shabbos Underground in Ben Gurion Airport

Memories can pop up at the strangest of times. I guess it’s the magic of subconscious thought.

Following our recent aliyah flight, upon disembarking we were escorted downstairs to some offices in order to fill out paperwork. Artificially lit underground hallways and that stifling feel due to lack of windows are never too pleasant – but this time, feeling more exhausted than I’d ever been, was different. We had no return flight. Every step we took away from the plane led us further away from our old life. So for obvious reasons my mind wasn’t focused on our physical surroundings. Or maybe it was, subconsciously, because among the hundreds of thoughts going through my mind, I was mentally transported back to the time – years before this decision had been made – that I had spent Shabbos in these same surroundings.

The year was early 2005. It was about an hour before candle-lighting time would usher in Shabbos on that wintry Friday, and I was sitting in a gray plastic bucket seat, on the phone with a woman living in Kfar Chabad, frantically trying to explain in my broken Hebrew that we wouldn’t make it to her house in time for Shabbos. She listened patiently while I stumbled over disconnected Hebrew words, me trying to explain my predicament, her obviously not understanding a word of my Hebrew; “Regah,” [wait] , she finally said, putting me on hold to go fetch her neighbor whom she claimed spoke English. The neighbor came to the phone, and I repeated to her what I had told the would-be hostess. “Speaks English” is a relative term, I guess, but my crude 18-year-old American Bais-Yaakov-education Hebrew combined with her rudimentary English somehow blessedly allowed her to understand what was going on. I apologized that we wouldn’t make it to her house on time, thanked her for agreeing to host us anyway on such short notice, and hung up, eyes nervously scanning the airport’s digital board that indicates incoming flight times. The flight was scheduled to land at 4:35. Candlelighting was at 4:45 or thereabouts. I was in Ben Gurion airport and the sun wasn’t standing still.

My seminary year in Israel, my mother and sister decided to come for a visit. I was very excited since I don’t have family in Israel and this would be my mother’s first time visiting the country as well. They were flying from the USA with a connecting flight in France and were due to land Thursday night, so we’d have plenty of time to get to our hosts in the Old City in time for Shabbos. Finding Shabbos hosts when you’re a seminary or yeshiva student in Israel is a sort of graceful dance. It requires a delicate balance of diplomacy and often humor, and at times flattery and guilt. If it’s someone you don’t know that well – and if it’s someone that lives in the Old City of Jerusalem, no less – it’s normal to feel great gratitude and victory in equal measures once you secure accommodations. This had been one of those times. But I digress.

Lo and behold, when the flight had landed in France my mother and sister wound up missing their connecting flight, in what my mother describes as a surreal experience. They exited the plane at Charles DeGaul airport and everybody else seemingly just dissipated into thin air; simply nobody had remained in the terminal. They walked around in circles looking for somebody, anybody, any way to get out of the terminal. Finally they saw people walking around on a lower level but they couldn’t find a way to get to that level – there were no stairs or elevators in sight. It was like they were trapped in an M.C. Escher painting. In what was surely no coincidence, by the time they found the gate their flight to Israel had departed. The next available flight would leave the next day, and was scheduled to land in Israel a couple of hours before Shabbos. “Okay,” I thought. Deep breath in, slow breath out (it works sometimes). “This is cutting it close, but if they land exactly on time, zoom through security and catch a cab right away, we can probably make it to Jerusalem on time.”

The plane ended up being delayed. So here I was sitting in the airport, watching the minutes slowly tick by and the sun continue its relentless descent on the horizon. Fortunately several pragmatic seminary friends and I foresaw (how?) that this was a possibility. Before going to the airport, I had run to the incredible shuk Machane Yehuda and packed a few emergency provisions: grape juice, challah rolls, hummus, fruit (including the amazing dragonfruit that has seeds like black pebbles – enjoy only if you have great dental insurance) and the all-important rugelach.  Some very kind friends provided me with candles, paper goods, some other supplies, and an encouraging “good luck” as I hailed a cab to the airport.

But as the hours passed and I was still sitting in the gray plastic bucket seat at Arrivals, I realized I needed to get in touch with the Chabad Rabbi who helps people like me – that is, people hopelessly stranded at the airport.  He directed me to the aforementioned woman in nearby Kfar Chabad, who graciously agreed to take us in at such short notice.  When it got even later, I realized that even going to her for Shabbos was starting to look doubtful.  My nerves made me forget half the scant Hebrew I knew, but I also knew that at the rate things were going we probably wouldn’t make it out of the airport in time and I needed to let her know. Once I did, Chabad Rabbi (I wish I remembered his name) stepped in again, and gave me directions over the phone on how to find “Dudi”, a manager who was working at Ben Gurion that day who would try to help me.

I found Dudi, or rather, he found me: I saw him walking toward me through the crowds, a tall, affable, clean-shaven and bare-headed Israeli.  He smiled enormously and warmly at me, with a touch of pity for this pitiful American teenager who was just standing there like a lost lamb.  “Ruuuchel,” he said, rolling the ‘R’ off his tongue and stretching the first syllable, beaming with pride at knowing and using the Yiddish pronunciation of my name, “follow me.”

He led me through a corridor, down a flight of stairs which had a sign affixed at the top saying “Employees Only” (or maybe it said “Emergency Exit” – either way, I felt like a VIP), down another corridor, and into a room in the bowels of the airport: the locker room, where employees come to change into their work clothes,  grab some refreshments, and dubiously gawk at stranded passengers. This double room was to be our accommodations for the next twenty-five hours. But Dudi wasn’t finished with his tour. Versed in rudimentary halacha, he ceremoniously pointed out that the doors leading into the room were automatic; we wouldn’t be able to leave the room once Shabbos started.  Plus, the lights were on a timer and would turn on at 5:30 am, which is also when the female airport staff, whose locker room this was, would be coming in to prepare for their morning shift.

At this point, being stuck in a linoleum-floored and fluorescent-lit room for a day was the least of my concerns (yes, thank G-d there was a bathroom there. Otherwise this would have taken a very different turn). I followed him back upstairs to wring my hands while waiting for the plane to land.  It landed right before candle-lighting.  White-knuckled, frantic and frazzled, the second I saw my mother and sister walk through the double doors I shouted, “Come on! We have to light candles!”  Dudi was serenely waiting, but when he saw how hurriedly I brought over my mother and sister he quickly jumped into action and led us back down through the maze until we reached our room. “Ruuuchel”, he said kindly, “if you need anything, you let me know.”  He gave me his cell phone number. We copiously thanked him for his graciousness and hastily readied ourselves, sliding into home base ragged and out of breath, without a second to spare.

After Kiddush and some delicious food from the shuk we all collapsed onto our cots (I have no idea where Dudi managed to procure those, but thank you, thank you to the anonymous fellow Earthling who foresaw the need for cots at the airport). We were grateful the harrowing last few hours were over and, after catching up a bit, got to sleep.

At 5:30 the next morning we were awakened: first by the bright fluorescent lights clicking on, immediately followed by the gaggling of the female airport workers arriving for their shift.  “Let the fun begin,” I thought tremulously. And not a moment too soon. The cheerful voices stopped abruptly and ominously when the women entered the room.  While my mother and sister pretended to continue sleeping, very convincingly since they had eye masks, I scrambled into a chair and sat bolt upright at attention, trying to pretend it was completely normal for me to be sitting there along with two random people lying in repose on a Saturday morning at 5:30am on the floor of a ladies’ locker room.

In retrospect, and in their defense, pretending to sleep was probably a better choice than futile attempts at trying to explain ourselves, though I’m sure it would’ve been very entertaining for the listeners; besides, I had the best Hebrew in the group (laughable, yes) and so was silently and unanimously elected as the scapegoat – I mean, spokeswoman.  Finally one of the women found her voice. In staccato Hebrew, she asked me something along the lines of, “What in the world are you three doing here?” Thankfully I might have missed certain words.   My answer was simple (also because my vocabulary was simple).

“Shabbat.”

Wasn’t it obvious that the flight landed too late for us to go anywhere? Didn’t they find people sleeping on the basement floor like, every weekend? Apparently not.

“Shabbat! Mah zeh ‘Shabbat’?!” the leader asked, perhaps rhetorically. She and her co-workers laughed hysterically as if they had planned this inside joke.

In my strongly accented Hebrew (Henglish?) I tried explaining to them about the late landing, and we ran out of time, and . . .  But this was too bizarre a spectacle for them to pay any attention to my feeble explanations. They continued laughing, glancing from me, all baggy-eyed and flustered, to the two people on the cots who were suspiciously still sound asleep through all the commotion. After some more head shakes they got ready and left.

I listened to their voices slowly fading away as they turned a corner and went back upstairs. I let out the breath I hadn’t realized I had been holding in. My mother and sister were finally able to stop pretending they were asleep and got up. The rest of the day was pleasant enough. Though we couldn’t leave the room, we had food, shelter, and mattresses. Not much else mattered at the moment. The hours passed quietly, though we listened for sounds of the employees returning.

That evening when we prepared to leave, I tried to find Dudi in order to thank him again, but couldn’t track him down. We sent a fruit platter with his name on it to the airport the next week. I hope it got to him somehow. I am still immensely grateful to him for his humor, kindness, understanding and enthusiasm in making us as comfortable as possible under stressful circumstances. I’m also thankful to the anonymous woman in Kfar Chabad who willingly agreed to take in three extra guests less than an hour before Shabbos. I felt that in a way, I was connected to something greater than myself. Only in Israel would an airport manager know that we can’t activate automatic doors on Shabbos. And only here would I be discussing Shabbos with airport employees in Hebrew in a way that they would find hilarious.

The Jewish people have brought in Shabbos in every fathomable situation, and obviously the bowels of Ben Gurion airport pales in comparison to most of those places. Perhaps the ladies in the locker room weren’t listening to my attempts to clarify things simply because they didn’t need an explanation.  Shabbos came, so we dropped everything and lit candles.  “What is Shabbos?”  the woman asked.  How does one answer that question, when it comes from someone who presumably does know what Shabbos is? I still wonder what else I could have answered. Time won’t wait, but explanations will.

Now it was 2019 again. We finished our paperwork and stepped out of the airport and into our new life.

Now, I am grateful that when I light my Shabbos candles each week in my home in Israel, I am not on a cot in a locker room . . .  and that there are no buzzing fluorescent lights on a timer overhead. And that my Hebrew has improved. I will never forget the kindness of both friends and strangers who made that memorable Shabbos as pleasant as possible.

So take a lesson from this – never take a plane to Israel with a connecting flight in France. Just kidding. But if you do – bring your own grape juice, do some preemptive shopping at the shuk (actually, do that all the time), and be prepared to drop everything and light.

About the Author
Born in California, Rochel spent her formative years in Baltimore, MD. She grew up in an open home with as many varied guests as personalities and stories. After getting married, she moved to Brooklyn, NY, where she tried to learn as much from the busy city as she could while obtaining a Master's degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. Twelve years and four children later, she and her family took the leap and made aliyah in 2019. See her other work on aish.com, Nashim Magazine, and Hevria, as well as her blog about travel, aliyah, and other topics: https://livingonup.wordpress.com/
Related Topics
Related Posts
Comments