On a recent flight from LA to Israel, my husband and I settled comfortably in our assigned seats near each other, when a seemingly secular fellow approached us. The man claimed that my husband was sitting in this man’s seat, that we had been given it mistakenly by the airline. My husband checked his boarding pass, which matched the seat, but the man seemed agitated. So, not wanting to make a scene, my husband moved to several rows ahead of us. With his “frum” uniform of white shirt, black pants, and black yarmulka, his general philosophy is to avoid conflict whenever possible when around unaffiliated people. I would have preferred that he get one of the crew involved to help him. But it happened so quickly, that I just accepted that I’d be sitting a distance from him.
I chatted with my new seat-mate and then occupied myself with my standard plane to-do list: following the on-screen map, sleeping, reading and doing paperwork.
Toward the end of the flight, while dozing, I heard the Israeli flight attendant’s voice announcing on the loudspeaker the typical pre-landing directives to fasten seatbelts, put trays up, empty pockets of trash, and other housekeeping matters that have me usually paying attention with half an ear, because I can recite and obey them in my slumber. But this was different, and I woke up with a start at the following announcement spoken in English, then in Hebrew.
“Will the fellow who prayed the ‘shacharis’ this morning in the galley of the aircraft, please let us know where the button to the window is because it broke off and now it’s missing. Please be aware that this button is valued at $20,000. We appreciate that you take care of the aircraft’s property.”
Shocked, I wished the flight attendant had simply asked, “Will the passenger who broke the button on the window in the back of the plane, let us know where the piece is located.”
Instead, she broadcasted that a religious person had broken property of the aircraft, and failed to report it. Granted, she had to use as many descriptors as possible, but still, I cringed and felt the sting of her public words. And I was concerned about a possible ruckus and someone getting fined $20,000! (Could a button really be worth that much?)
When the plane landed, and my husband and I were nearby gathering carryons, I noticed a religious man reporting to the flight attendant that it was he who had manipulated the button on the windows in order to see the view. He told the flight attendant that when he turned the special button on the window that varies the darkness and brightness of the window, the button fell off. The man said that he had wanted to inform the crew immediately that the button got stuck inside the window compartment, but that they were busy serving meals.
Actually, I could have seen myself doing the same thing. I mean, who wants to interrupt the hectic meal carts for a measely broken window button?
The flight attendant seemed content with the guy’s reporting the whereabouts of the missing button, but still I thought how as religious people, we are noticed. The one with the hat, beard. The one reading the foreign language book. The one praying. They pair these noticeably outward rituals with our mentschlich-keit or lack of it and they observe our actions and report about it. Possibly, they share it with their families and friends at their dinner tables.
On social media, many are quick to judge people of other groups who look different from them. And when those groups are religious or from right-wing more conservative camps, they are held to a harsher standard. Whether we think it’s fair or not, is not the point. The reality is that as individuals, we each have to try harder to act appropriately.
After everyone deplaned from that flight to Tel Aviv, and we were walking to customs, I caught up to the flight attendant who was walking ahead of us with a few colleagues. I casually acknowledged the scare she had gone through of missing the piece.
She smiled, saying that all is well. She was happy the guy had told her where it was and they would make sure to get it out from inside where it had gotten stuck. When I expressed surprise to her that the button was worth more than a mere few dollars ($20,000? Really? Seriously?), she responded, “Do you want the plane you fly to be made up of items worth a dollar?” I laughed at her little joke.
But, the full force of the event hit me. We as Jews represent the Torah that guides our values. And if any one of us shows a lack of consideration in the smallest way around those who are watching us, we are devaluing what we stand for. When my husband gave up his seat, I was annoyed that I’d have to sit alone for a fourteen hour flight; I now realized how important it was that he did that. Being mindful to do the right thing, and taking care not to press any wrong buttons, whether it’s an agitated secular passenger, or a fragile button on a fancy window, will bring about a Kiddush Hashem. Loud and clear.