The airport chaplain: Praying for a safe landing
Why can’t we just wait and pray on the plane? Well, we can, but it can be hazardous. Like the boy on a US Airways flight a few years ago, whose donning of tefillin (small leather boxes with Torah parchments inside) caused the flight crew to make an emergency landing because it looked to them like he was strapping on a bomb. (Of course, this is not a problem on El Al, where it’s common to see groups of Jewish men crowding the aisle at the break of dawn, praising God and inconveniencing flight attendants.)
If you can’t get a minyan together, you just have to pray, or daven, by yourself. But swaying in place while waiting to board, eyes closed and talking to yourself, might land you on the no-fly list.
A friend told me he used to daven at a pay phone so it would look like he was simply having a conversation. Once, he turned around and found people staring at him, which was mystifying until he saw the big “Out of Order” sign over the phone bank.
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I once davened at the JFK Airport Interfaith Prayer Room, a nondescript space off the concourse in Terminal 4. I was greeted by a gray-haired minister with a serious paunch and a kindly face. He tried to size me up, but my baseball hat hid any sign of affiliation. So he eagerly showed me the contents of a cabinet near the door.
“We have rosary beads, a tallis, three turbah stones, holy water — whatever you need,” he said. He sounded like Q showing off his wares to 007.
“Thanks,” I said, “I’ll take a siddur.” With the Jewish prayer book in my hand, I stepped toward the sanctuary, a tiny area that was currently at capacity with two men kneeling on Muslim prayer rugs, touching their heads to the floor.
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“Oh!” the chaplain exclaimed, grabbing my sleeve. “Why don’t you use the, uh … annex?” He guided me toward a curtain behind the sanctuary. “You’ll be much more comfortable there.” I peeked behind the curtain. The “annex” was an even tinier space and filled with boxes, dust and an old folding chair.
“Thanks, that’s all right. I’ll use the sanctuary,” I replied. The chaplain looked very concerned as I walked past him, visions of Holy War dancing in his head. But gesturing to the two guys on the floor, I told him, “Don’t worry, we’re cousins.”
At his look of confusion, I explained, “Isaac and Ishmael?”
“Oh!” he said, “Cousins. Right.” But it didn’t seem to quell his anxiety.
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The only spot available in the sanctuary was in the far corner, so I carefully stepped over the first guy. But just as I did, he finished his bowing. To avoid kicking him, I did a little hop, lost my footing and almost landed on the second guy. Tomorrow’s headlines flashed through my mind.
Washington Post: “ ‘Jewish ‘Zealot’ Disrupts Muslim Prayer at Airport”
New York Post: “Prayer Room Melee!”
Al Jazeera: “Crazed Ultra-Orthodox Jew Attacks Muslim”
Yahoo News: “Man Assaults Nun at Bus Station”
Fortunately, with a Warner Bros.-cartoon twist and leap in midair, I managed to avoid landing on the kneeling guy, got to the corner and davened with unusual fervor and without further incident.
This time, that’s me, at Ataturk International Airport in Turkey, trying to get a minyan together before boarding a flight to the United States. I’d been saying kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, for a cousin who passed away and had left no sons. Kaddish can be said only with a minyan of at least 10 men, and this was my last chance to do it that day.
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I’d already gotten a couple of volunteers, waiting impatiently on the sidelines as I tried to drum up business: One of them was a Chassid with a bushy beard, payos, velvet yarmulke and iPhone 6; the other, a sour-faced Sephardi man who was dubious I could pull this off. “They start to board in five minutes,” he reminded me. “And I don’t see anyone else with a kippah.”
“Don’t worry,” I yelled as I hurried off to accost an older gentlemen reading an Amos Oz book.
“Mincha?” I asked him. He looked up at me with a pained expression, glanced at the two-tenths of a minyan standing on the sidelines and gave me an “if-I-must” shrug.
Great. Only six more to go. I ran over to a group of people wearing “I love Israel” T-shirts. “Mincha?” One shook my hand happily, repeating, “Mincha, mincha!” They were evangelicals who thought I was greeting them in Turkish.
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I cut off another group wearing Birthright Israel T-shirts and heading to the Duty Free shop. Two more recruits.
I raced over to a man on a pay phone. “Mincha?” I asked
He nodded but hand-signaled that it would have to wait until he finished his call. I signaled he should finish. Then I glanced over at the group waiting on the sidelines. Sourpuss was gone.
I dashed over to the Chassid, who told me Sourpuss had boarded. “I don’t think this is going to happen,” he said.
“Yes, it will,” I cried, then sprinted to the next gate.
“Mincha!” A bumper crop – three more men. As I started off to a third gate, out of the corner of my eye I saw one of the Duty Free guys wandering away from the group. I ran over and grabbed his arm. “Two minutes – just give me two minutes!” I said. He rejoined the group, casting a doleful look at the displays of glittering bottles and crisply wrapped packages.
I finally got my 10th man. Dragging him over to the antsy group, I told them to begin, shouting to cover the public-address announcement that rows 20 through 32 were now boarding.
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“Which way is mizrach?” Minyan Man No. 7 asked me, referring to the easterly direction a Jew is supposed to face when he davens. I darted over to one of the Turkish Airline workers behind the desk, avoiding the annoyed looks of fellow travelers who thought I was trying to cut the line. “Excuse me, which way is east?” I asked.
The worker looked at me quizzically for a moment, then said, “You are wanting this for your minyan?”
I raced back to the group with the information. God works in mysterious ways.
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One of the Gate 3 guys stepped up to lead the prayers when a woman with beauty-parlor hair and a Midwestern accent came over to me and asked, “Is this for a safe ride?”
“No,” I said, and turned back to the group. But then I had to turn back to her. “Actually, yes, it sort of is. I mean, it certainly couldn’t hurt,” I said. Then I gave a nod to the Gate 3 guy to start.
“Would you mind if I joined you?” she asked.
What was I going to say? The plane was boarding, the men were mutinous and there just wasn’t time to explain that it’s not standard operating procedure to include well-meaning but decidedly non-Jewish ladies from Iowa in a minyan.
I smiled and made a sweeping gesture with my hand. “Be our guest,” I said.
We got through the davening, I said kaddish, a few of the guys and the lady from Iowa thanked me, and we all got on the plane.
Who knows if the merit of making the minyan kept 200 tons of steel in the air until we reached New York? I don’t know how God does his job. I just try to do mine.
Eric Brand has written books, television scripts, song lyrics, marketing materials for financial firms and supermarket shopping lists for more than 30 years.
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