Since El Al flight 002 from New York to Tel Aviv diverted to Athens this past Friday in order to land before Shabbos, much ink has been spilled. As a “flying commuter,” I have taken numerous flights during this time slot for work. This flight was different, though, due to numerous delays. The stress level and frustration on the plane was palpable; between the lack of information, and some underlying feelings based on long-term negative experiences with El Al regarding the treatment of passengers, tensions ran high. But even in the midst of frustration and stress, I learned an important lesson in judging others favorably.
Before the plane took off, I was disturbed when some Haredi passengers wanted to disembark, as postponing our ascent any further meant that we would surely not reach Israel in time for Shabbos. I did not argue with them as I understood their position, but felt that they should have known the risk that they were taking in getting on the flight to begin with.
When I saw that the destination on the personal screen change to Athens, I quickly strategized that we needed to convince the pilot to continue on to Israel as long as we were still scheduled to land before Shabbos. We had still believed that it was a matter of landing an hour before Shabbos, and not 13 minutes before, as we later learned was the case. We assumed that El Al was being overly cautious, at our expense, due to political concerns.
I began speaking forcefully with staff, as I believed that without speaking to someone of authority we would surely not head straight to Israel, and without being assertive we would never have access to whoever that person was. Suddenly, and without any further explanation, the pilot announced we would be going to Athens. Immediately, as I realized that the issue was no longer up for debate, I stopped arguing, lowered my voice, and went over to each person that I had spoken strongly to and apologized.
When we landed, we had no idea what time sunset was, or what was waiting for us. However, even in the midst of each passenger’s personal rush, the mood began to change. I saw people helping each other get food from the plane, assisting others deplane the aircraft, and taking strangers into their rooms when we discovered that there would be a room shortage.
Once Shabbos arrived, I went downstairs to find a beautiful Carlebach-style davening with all different types of Jews singing, dancing, and praying together. Jews from across the shomer Shabbos spectrum joined together for the meal; from a woman in pants, to a Hasid in full garb, everyone sat together as one. Shabbos changed everyone. I went from being stressed out and frazzled to smiling, singing, and dancing. Shabbos had brought with her a sense of calm and peace in a new and profound way.
The people that I had once thought should “know better” before boarding were now joining me for kiddush. We sang and laughed together, and it was as if I was seeing them, really seeing them, for the very first time. In this moment I understood what it means to judge someone favorably.
I ended up becoming close with some of those that I was so upset at for potentially delaying us, and understood that they were not regular travelers, as I am, and had no idea of the risk that they were taking with winter delays. Someone who had been critical of my communication came to understand that I had a strategy, and that I had later apologized to everyone with a full heart. I became friends with my neighbors from parts of Beit Shemesh that were, or I had assumed were, on the polar opposite side of a heated election just a month earlier. When you get to know people as individuals and break the stereotypes, a lot of judgement can disappear.
In fact, I met various Haredi passengers that stayed in touch with their secular flight mates who warned them about how the media was trying to present the story. It saddens me that we did not have the opportunity to share Shabbos with some of our non-observant brothers and sisters that went to reporters to complain about us. Perhaps we too could have bonded in the same way to find common ground and love.
It is fitting that Chabad, whom I have always admired for doing amazing work at great expense to themselves, were the ones to save Shabbos. With only a few hours notice they brought in fully-catered meals and all religious articles fit for the beautiful hotel that we were staying in. Chabad Shluchim teach us not to judge others – love everyone and they will come to love you back, impact them with love, warmth and smiles.
The love between all different types of Jews at this impromptu Shabbaton was one of the highlights of my life. These Jews would not have chosen to be together in most circumstances. I’ve heard that staff at the hotel were blown away by the nature, behavior, and mood of the group, as well as the appreciation expressed over the entire Shabbos. While I am greatly disappointed in El Al’s actions that led to this and hope they will take actions to correct course for the future, I thank Hashem for giving me this amazing experience of unity and a chance to judge my neighbor favorably. And as a thank you to the heros of the Shabbos and the models of Jewish unity, the passengers of flight 002 held an appeal to help the Chabad house of Athens finish building its mikvah to the tune of what some are saying reached six figures.