Tefillin or Security Threat? Teen Teaches U.S. about Jewish Ritual

[by Phyllis Shaikun]

When 17-year-old Caleb Leibowitz and his 16-year-old sister, Dalia, boarded a Chautauqua Airlines plane last week for a flight to Louisville to visit their grandmother, Frances Winchell, they never dreamt they would make headlines around the world by the time they landed in Kentucky – but that’s what happened.

Leibowitz, a senior at a yeshiva high school for boys in Manhattan, had to leave home before it was time to daven (recite morning prayers) and proceeded to put on his tefillin (or phylacteries – two small square boxes that contain strips of parchment inscribed with Hebrew scriptures, one of which is strapped to the forehead and the other to the left arm, and traditionally worn by Jewish men during weekday morning prayers) and started to pray on the plane. That’s when the furor began. As a result, and people across the country and around the world – Jew and non-Jew alike – received a lesson in Tefillin 101!

The stewardess asked Leibowitz what he had on his head, and he explained it was a ritual object worn by observant Jewish men during the recitation of their morning prayers. At the time, he didn’t know whether she was just curious or if she was concerned, but she seemed satisfied and continued offering drinks to the other passengers. Shortly thereafter, an announcement was made about preparing the plane for landing.

On New York’s Zev Brenner Show on WMCA 570 Talkline Communication, Leibowitz said he finished his prayers and couldn’t imagine the plane had already reached Louisville (a two-hour flight). When he and his sister looked out the window and saw police officers with bomb-smelling dogs on the tarmac, however, they suspected something was terribly wrong. At the time, they had no idea the plane had been diverted to Philadelphia.

Members of the bomb squad entered the plane with guns drawn and told everyone to get their hands up. They ordered Caleb Leibowitz to put his hands behind his back and escorted him off the plane. He was handcuffed and told to kneel down on the ground so the dogs could sniff him. Then he was asked to identify the items in his bag, which included the tefillin, a prayer book and two bagels. His sister, who was terrified at that point, was subjected to a similar routine.

Both young people agreed they were treated kindly – under the circumstances. They were questioned by the FBI, then taken to a US Airways lounge and kept there until new reservations to Louisville could be arranged.

Their parents, Amy Winchell Leibowitz, who grew up in Louisville, and her husband, Glen, both of White Plains, NY, could understand the airline’s concern, but were upset they were unable to get information about the children’s whereabouts while they were being detained for several hours.

Although the airline was apologetic after the fact, Glen Leibowitz said, “There’s a difference between hyper-vigilance and overreaction. This was a total overreaction.” He could understand the stewardess’ confusion, but felt she should have asked his son for further clarification if she was still concerned. Meanwhile, the incident precipitated international front-page headlines and extensive television coverage 

The family learned that major airlines do inform personnel about basic customs observed by various religions – including information about tefillin, but personnel working with regional carriers such as Chautauqua Airlines, that flew the plane to Louisville, do not receive such information.

While it is regrettable that observant Jewish teens like Caleb and Dalia Leibowitz had to endure an upsetting and ultimately avoidable incident, citizens of the world are now all the wiser for the lesson learned.

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