Original Article Published On The Jerusalem Post

El Al has experienced a lot of growing pains and financial losses. But we need it.

Last week, as the missiles continued to land in Israel from Gaza, I sat bleary-eyed at Ben-Gurion Airport, waiting to board my 3 a.m. flight to Newark. At Gate D8 in an eerily quiet airport, I drew one step closer to clarifying my complicated lifelong relationship with El Al Airlines.

My love/hate relationship with El Al started in the late 70s with my childhood rabbi-led ZOA mission and bar mitzvah trip. This flight to Israel was also my first time flying anywhere. It was important to fly El Al, we were told over and over again, since they had “the best security.”

I flew El Al on my summer teen trip at age 16, and for my college year in Israel for the same reason – even if the food, customer service and entertainment console left a bit to be desired. I began to suspect there were other options. Tower, for example, flew to Israel from 1983 to 2000. People seemed willing to forgo El Al security to save a few bucks. Some college friends even flew as couriers – traveling without any luggage so they could carry packages for others. Those days are long gone. And Tower no longer exists – they declared bankruptcy and were liquidated. I stuck with El Al for years, though ticket prices seemed to also include a certain unique El Al experience and attitude that was not for the weak. Only on El Al fights would flight attendants scream at, then allow religious passengers to congregate at the back of the plane to pray in a minyan, or socialize with passengers – comparing notes about growing up in Holon or serving in the IDF “with your sister.”

As an adult, I made the switch to real airlines like United, Delta or American. How convenient to take a flight directly from Philadelphia to Tel Aviv on American!

While the many Birthright trips I have led meant flying on Israel’s national airline, I felt liberated flying these other airlines on pleasure trips. These airlines could also provide kosher meals, they had better entertainment consoles, frequent flyer programs that made sense and were fair, competitive prices, and they could keep haredi passengers in check – patiently and skillfully handling the occasional passenger who refused to be seated next to a woman.

In my recent first post-COVID flight to Israel, United Airlines was clean, flight attendants enforced mask rules for everyone, and they even boldly announced, “If anyone needs to daven during the flight, please do it in your seat sitting down; do not congregate at the back of the plane.” 

Everyone listened.

I began to think it might be possible to never fly El Al again. Then, Operation Guardian of the Walls started. 

Immediately, all of the other airlines suspended service to and from Israel. Who kept flying? El Al! At first, they outsmarted Hamas by flying into Ramon International Airport in Eilat, and busing passengers the 313 km (3½ hours) to Ben-Gurion Airport. Within days, they resumed service into and out of Ben-Gurion. El Al shuttled passengers to and from Newark and JFK, Tbilisi, Zagreb, Addis Ababa and the Seychelles. 

For a week, they were one of the only airlines flying. My United flight was canceled twice. Loyal customers of Delta, United and American began to consider other options if they wanted to leave Israel. There was essentially only one option – El Al. As the bar mitzvah of my long-time students rapidly approached, even I jumped ship and got one of the last tickets on LY 25, El Al’s 3 a.m. flight on Wednesday morning.

As I waited for our 2:10 a.m. boarding time, it occurred to me just what makes El Al unique. El Al is the sabra of airlines. They are prickly on the outside – a bit rough with customers and not the best with customer service – but they have heart of gold, or at least a rich history and unwavering commitment to bringing Jews to and from the Promised Land.

They have been doing so since September 1948 when EL AL operated its maiden flight, bringing home Israel’s first president, Haim Weizmann, from a diplomatic visit to Geneva. In 1949, El Al participated in Operation Magic Carpet, bringing Jews of Yemen to Israel. In May 1960, EL Al transported the famous Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann from Buenos Aires to Jerusalem for the Eichmann Trial. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, EL AL continued flying and assisted in airlifting military equipment.

In 1991, EL Al participated in Operation Solomon, transporting thousands of Jews from Ethiopia to Israel. Ever complained about lack of legroom on an EL AL flight? Remember that one of El Al’s flights from Ethiopia reportedly carried more than 1,088 people, including two babies who were born on the flight. 

El Al has experienced a lot of growing pains and financial losses since then. But this past week taught me a valuable lesson. We need El Al. They have managed to stay in the air through tough times, and they might just be taking steps toward becoming a real airline. 

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Members of a Birthright group talk about the joys of seeing the country with people just like themselves

More than 20,000 Birthright participants will have spent 10 days in Israel by the end of the 2012-2013 winter season, including 20 participants with Asperger’s Syndrome, now known as the “Mishpocha,” or Bus No. 195.

It’s not the first time that Birthright has included an Asperger’s bus — this one is a project of Shorashim/KOACH, the college organization run by the Conservative Movement — but for many of the participants, who range in age from late teens to mid-20s, it’s been a while since they’ve spent so much time with their own “population.”

“It’s an interesting dynamic — very enlightening to connect with one’s roots,” said Jason Shatz, who is studying at Wesleyan University in Connecticut and had a tough time deciding whether to go on Birthright with the Asperger’s group or with the Wesleyan bus. “In some ways it’s quite nice to be with such a population, even though I’ve developed socially in a significant way ever since I went to college.”

Birthrighter Jason Shatz (right) praying at the Western Wall (photo credit: Courtesy Birthright Bus No. 195)

For the bus’s “other” Jason, Jason Cohen, a 21-year-old sports management major at Ithaca College, the trip felt like an opportunity to return to his “Asperger’s roots,” something he hasn’t done since his high school days.

Funny, smart and personable, and sometimes amusingly out of context, the Birthrighters and one of the three soldiers traveling with them sat in the lobby of their hotel on the last day of the trip last week, speaking about the “quirks” of fellow Asperger’s sufferers, favorite highlights of the trip and what it will be like to say goodbye at the end of their journey.

“It was great to be around other people I can identify with,” said Lauren Katz, a 19-year-old from Eureka, California, who is studying art at College of the Redwoods. “I’ve always been the kind of person who’s never really fit in; I never interacted with people I could really communicate with on the same level.”

Lauren Katz hails from Eureka, CA, where she has never had a large group of friends (Courtesy Birthright Bus #195)

Gathering together a sizable group of young people with Asperger Syndrome was one of the ideas of the trip, said group leader Howard Blas, who has run similar Birthright trips in the past. Despite the high-functioning level of many of the Asperger’s participants, they often feel socially bereft back in their home settings; this was one place where they could experience a particular social bond.

“It’s not common for me to meet other people with Asperger’s or higher-functioning special needs people in Albany,” said Beth Katzer, 25, who works as a teacher’s assistant and part-time administrative assistant. “This trip was so important for me, to make friends I could see myself being friends with for the rest of my life. Even though we all have challenges, we could all come together.”

The Birthright trip was much like any other, including camel rides and orange-picking, trying out Israeli snack foods, floating in the Dead Sea and jeep rides in the Golan Heights. But they also met with Israelis with Asperger’s at Shekel, an umbrella organization for Israelis with special needs. The two groups bonded over favorite television shows and the Birthrighters’ first tastes of peanut-flavored Bamba and chocolate-covered marshmallow Krembos, and there was comfort in the ingathering of fellow Asperger’s sufferers, agreed the Birthrighters.

“There are kindred spirits in this population, and we share the same zeal for sharing the things in which we have expertise and same enthusiasm,” said Shatz. “Regular life has been good to me and my experience with Asperger’s is somewhat of a moot point although I do visit it now and then…. I struggle socially more than other people, but I think I’m getting there.”

Tomer Daloomi (far right), was amazed by the forthright outlook and conversation on the bus (Courtesy Birthright Bus No. 195)

It was that kind of disarming honesty that charmed and humbled Tomer Daloomi, one of the three soldiers who joined Bus No. 195. Told just four days before the trip that he would be placed on a Birthright bus, he didn’t know what to expect, but has unexpectedly found himself seeing Israel through a very different prism.

“I’m usually cynical, like most Israelis, but these guys are just not sarcastic,” he said. “They were saying how they felt with no masks on at all. They’re just always themselves.”


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