Pilot Diverts Plane Over Teen's In-Flight Prayer

Filed under: In The News, Weird But True

The teen was using tefillin, a set of small black boxes attached to leather straps and containing biblical passages. Credit: chaim zvi, Flickr

A devout teen caused a scare in the air Jan. 17 when, while trying to pray, he pulled out a set of small boxes containing holy scrolls and strapped them to his arm and head during a commuter jet flight from New York to Kentucky.

The Associated Press reports that a Jewish 17-year-old was using tefillin, a set of small boxes containing biblical passages that are attached to leather straps. When used for prayer, one box is strapped to the arm and one is placed on the head. The sight alarmed passengers and crew members and caused the pilot to make an unexpected landing in Philadelphia.

"It's something that the average person is not going to see very often, if ever," FBI spokesman J.J. Klaver tells the news service.

A diverted plane is escorted by to a terminal at Philadelphia International Airport in Philadelphia on Jan. 21. Credit: Matt Rourke, AP

The crew of US Airways Express Flight 3079, operated by Chautauqua Airlines, questioned the boy, but told authorities they did not receive a clear response. The plane was met by police, bomb-sniffing dogs and federal agents.

The early-morning flight -- it departed New York's LaGuardia Airport at 7:30 a.m. -- left no time for the boy's morning prayers, explained the teen's grandmother, who was waiting for him at Louisville International Airport in Kentucky.

"He hadn't had the opportunity to pray, so that is why he did it on the plane," Frances Winchell tells the Associated Press.

The teen, who was traveling with his 16-year-old sister, was questioned by authorities and then released. The rabbi for the family's synagogue tells AP that the boy is a "brilliant young student" from "the sweetest family."

Rabbi Shmuel Greenberg adds that the morning prayer ritual could be alarming for those who are unfamiliar with it. In Judaism, binding the boxes of holy scrolls to the arm and head serves as "a reminder for the person that their actions during the day, and what they think about during the day, should be on a level of holiness and should inspire them to do productive, good things," he tells the news service.

Fears of terrorism have increased since the attempted Dec. 25 attack on a Northwest Airlines flight from Amsterdam to Detroit. However, Benjamin Blech, an assistant professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University in New York, says he finds it difficult to believe not one person on the flight recognized the tefillin as a religious ritual.

"We should be aware of ignorance just as much as we should be aware of terrorism," he tells AP, adding that the incident was both "humorous and outlandish."

Related: Airline Grounds Heavy Flight Attendants

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.