Does El Al Airlines Deserve to Be Airline Shamed? #AirlineShaming

I read an article entitled “Do You Deserve to Be Passenger Shamed?” that describes a Facebook page devoted to airline passengers behaving badly. Photos of people boarding planes barefoot, sticking bare feet between the two passengers seated directly in front of them, doing push-ups in the galley, leaving behind an avalanche of garbage, and various solo and pair airborne sexcapades are among the offenses.

However annoying and repulsive, the offenses highlighted on the Passenger Shaming page are apparently non-ejectable crimes. A recent Yahoo article describes ten ways that passengers have managed to get themselves kicked off planes. The charges range from being stinky, to using devices that prevent another passenger from reclining their seat, looking ill and contagious, throwing a prosthetic limb at a flight attendant, tweeting complaints about flight staff right before takeoff, bringing a snake on a plane, vehemently complaining about the in-flight movie, hiding in the bathroom to play cell phone games during take-off, getting irate when finding out fellow passengers got free upgrades, and finally, being too fat to comfortable occupy one seat.

Last week, on an El Al plane heading from New York to Tel Aviv before Rosh Hashanah, Elana Sztokman had an experience that most women flying on El Al Airlines have had at one time or another. An orthodox man tried to Passenger Shame her for – being a woman. Many orthodox men feel that it is a prohibition in Jewish law to sit next to a woman other than a wife, mother, or daughter. Therefore, if a man is randomly assigned a seat next to an unrelated woman, it causes a state of panic and frantic negotiations with other passengers to switch seats so that he will end up sitting next to a man.

In Elana’s case, the man trying to play musical seats caused a 20 minute take-off delay because he wouldn’t sit down until he found other passengers willing to accommodate him and switch places. Apparently the Rosh Hashanah holiday caused a higher than usual proportion of orthodox men traveling to Israel, because The Independent reported on another pre-Rosh Hashanah El Al flight whose take-off was delayed and “then descended into an 11-hour long nightmare” courtesy of orthodox Jewish men trying to coerce other passengers into changing seats.

“People stood in the aisles and refused to go forward,” a passenger on board the flight, Amit Ben-Natan, told the publication.

“Although everyone had tickets with seat numbers that they purchased in advance, they asked us to trade seats with them, and even offered to pay money, since they cannot sit next to a woman. It was obvious that the plane won’t take off as long as they’re standing in the aisles,” he said.

The Haredi passengers agreed to sit in their assigned seats for take-off, but one passenger described the overall experience as an “11-hour long nightmare,” referring to the difficulty before take-off and the ensuing disturbances on board, caused by the Haredi passengers “jumping out” of their seats when the fasten-seatbelt sign was switched off.

The airline said that “El Al does everything it can to give its passengers the best possible service all year-round.

“These days bring with them a peak in air traffic to Israel, and our crews on the ground and in the air are doing the best they can to address the needs and requests of all our travellers while trying not to fall behind schedule.”

When the story was posted to a Facebook group for Jews fed up with the way women are treated in orthodox society, many other women chimed in with their experiences, some claiming that it’s happened on other airlines flying to Israel too, but that the main culprit for allowing this kind of behavior is El Al. Some men become belligerent if their demands aren’t met, and spend flights bullying and harassing women who refused to change seats.

The lack of awareness of anyone else’s needs besides their own gets so extreme, that is isn’t uncommon for them to ask mothers seated with their children to switch seats away from their brood to accommodate same sex seating. Shalom Life reported that on the flight mentioned above, one orthodox man suggested that a married couple split up to accommodate his seating request,

“Galit, another traveler on the flight, said the ultra-orthodox passengers suggested she and her spouse split up to better accommodate their desired seating arrangements: “Why should I agree to switch places?” she said with anger.

After she refused, the haredi man seated next to her conceded, but it was only temporary: “I ended up sitting next to a haredi man who jumped out of his seat the moment we had finished taking off and proceeded to stand in the isle.”

When a larger contingency than usual of orthodox men board an El Al flight, such as before Jewish holidays, the bullying and pressure for women to change seats becomes more intense with their larger numbers.

Some women on the Facebook thread suggested that El Al reserve a men’s only section and a women’s only section for those needing such accommodations. For a fee, men and women can choose their seats in the same sex sections and avoid disrupting the flight before take-off. Other women said that if passengers can be removed for being abusive to airline staff, they should also be removed for being abusive to fellow passengers. Others wondered how passengers could be allowed to cause take-off delays and still be permitted to remain on board?

Most agreed, that as El Al seems to be the airline of choice for many orthodox travelers, the airline is afraid to be labelled as anti-Semitic or unaccommodating to their religious passenger’s needs. They are afraid to lose customers and money. Therefore they allow aggressive orthodox men to hijack their flights, refusing to be seated and allow take-off until their demands have been met by other passengers who paid for their flights and were assigned seating fair and square.

If you want to make your voice heard in asking El Al Airlines to stop the bullying, intimidation, and discrimination against women on their flights, please sign this petition. We can make a difference by speaking out!



Advocating for your modesty during the Jewish conversion ceremony

I received an email from a young woman who will soon be converting to Judaism. She had read my two part post on the subject of the orthodox Jewish conversion process and was nervous about maintaining her modesty during the ceremony. She wanted to know if she could bring supporters with her to the mikvah and how to make sure her privacy was respected.

I realize now that I should say a word about how women can advocate for themselves regarding the conversion ceremony. No woman should ever have to make sudden decisions while in a vulnerable state in front of three men and a mikvah lady. The key to having a meaningful and safe mikvah conversion is in the preparation.

The moment a convert officially joins the Jewish nation is a joyous and exciting time. As such, it is fitting to have family or friends share in your simcha by accompanying you to the mikvah. Your loved ones will most likely sit in the waiting area during the dunking ceremony, but if the rabbi allows it and you are comfortable, having a female friend in the mikvah room can be empowering. Of course, some people consider their conversion to be a quiet and introspective occasion, so going it alone is also fine. The question of whether guests are permitted on your special day should be answered by the rabbi organizing your conversion.

My own experience was rather unorthodox, as my beis din was an informal one and not run by an organizational body with set procedures (such as the RCA or CRC). The RCA and most battei dins that deal with female conversions do not actually have the rabbis in the room as the woman dunks – the mikvah lady is present and tells the rabbis (who are listening, yet out of eye sight) that the dunks were kosher. In my opinion, to ensure your conversion is run professionally and with established guidelines, you should go to an official  rabbinic organization, such as the ones mentioned above. With an ad hoc beis din there is simply too much room for error, miscommunication, and unexpected procedural changes.

The best way to safeguard your modesty during the ceremony is to explicitly ask the rabbi you are working with beforehand about details for the upcoming event. Don’t be afraid to voice your concerns about keeping the ceremony tznius. Due to insecurity and the desire to seem willing to comply with any halachic demands, many women are scared to make requests or ask questions. To avoid any unpleasant surprises while you are vulnerable in the mikvah – plan ahead!

I wish I would have asked more questions ahead of time. If I had been assured that only the mikvah lady would be in attendance during my dunk, I would have felt more empowered to say, “No, Rabbi so-and-so assured me that the only person permitted to actually witness my dunks is the mikvah lady – none of you are allowed to be standing over me.” Instead, being unprepared and wanting to get it over with, I allowed my privacy and modesty to be violated.

Plan ahead and ask all your questions before you step into the pool.  If you are satisfied with the answers, make sure the agreed upon conditions are upheld during the ceremony.  If you feel uncomfortable at any time, tell everyone to stop!  Ask for privacy so that you can exit the mikvah, get covered/dressed, and straighten out any miscommunications from a more empowered vantage point than naked in the mikvah. Female converts need to advocate for themselves. You are in charge of your conversion – after all, the ceremony can’t go on without you!

Update – 10/22/14 – In light of the recent scandal concerning RCA and Kesher Israel’s Rabbi Barry Freundel – I would caution any woman to insist on having a female advocate present throughout the conversion process.  The RCA has responded by announcing the appointment of female ombudsman to be available to women in the conversion process –

“In an effort to create an avenue for greater comfort and accountability in the conversion process following this most unfortunate episode, the RCA also announced two additional actions:
The RCA and the Beth Din of America have agreed that every Beit Din assembled under their Geirus Protocol and Standards (GPS) will appoint a woman (or group of women) to serve as ombudsman to receive any concerns of female candidates to conversion. The name of this person will be provided to all conversion candidates at the beginning of the conversion process.Prospective converts will be assured that their standing in the conversion process will not be compromised by communicating with the ombudsman, and that any such communications will remain confidential to the extent possible.

This week, the RCA will appoint a commission composed of rabbis, lay leaders and mental health professionals (including men and women) to review the current GPS conversion process and suggest safeguards against possible abuses. This commission will report its findings to the RCA Executive Committee by January 31, 2015.”

I’m not sure what that exactly means, but I believe there should be a halachically educated female physical presence during all female mikvah ceremonies beyond a balanit – a woman who has also mentored the conversion candidate throughout the process along with any rabbis.  If that’s what the RCA means by ombudsman, I’m for it.   If they mean an absent figure who can be called with any random questions but who is mainly removed from the process and from forming her own relationship with the convert, it isn’t sufficient.

I would never have dreamed about having to give a warning like this either, but NEVER submit to any practice dunks before the conversion for a rabbi, nor to any re-dunks after the conversion.  Also, no rabbi should be present in the changing area/preparation room/bathroom while a woman is present or about to enter such rooms.  I still don’t think that rabbis should ever actually be in the mikvah pool room while a woman is immersing.  Waiting outside the room and having a mikvah lady and/or female “ombudsman” witness the dunks as kosher should be enough.

It goes without saying that if a conversion rabbi ever makes suggestive remarks or hints at any type of blackmail of a sexual nature in order for a woman to obtain her conversion, she should run screaming in the opposite direction and report him to a higher authority (the rabbinical association/beis din he belongs to or the police if things went further than suggestion).

It is beyond me that a segment of Judaism that is so machmir about tznius has absolutely no problem with three frum men seeing a woman nude or nearly nude in a pool of water. It goes to show you the indiscriminate power that orthodox rabbis are given to do absolutely anything they want with no checks and balances.

Perhaps if some prominent orthodox rabbis or rabbinic organizations, such as the RCA, decided not to recognize any female conversions in which rabbis breached propriety and were present to witness her dunks (from this date forward), orthodox conversion protocols would change.

As Rabbanit Henkin says, it’s time to give the mikvah keys to the women.

21st Century Eugenics in the World of Shidduchim

*Avi was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease as a young child. While he has occasional symptom flare ups, he leads a full life that is not limited by his illness. Regardless of this fact, although the “shidduch crisis” normally works in favor of young men, Avi isn’t reaping the benefits of the excess available women.

As soon as young ladies, or more importantly their parents, hear of Avi’s condition, they immediately dismiss him as potential husband material. Avi has begun to wonder if he should be as forthcoming about the fact that he has Crohn’s disease in the future.

*Rena has Type 1 diabetes. Other than checking her blood sugar regularly, diabetes hasn’t slowed Rena down in any way. Although her doctor has assured her that she will live a full life and should have no problem having healthy pregnancies due to her condition, potential suitors and their families think otherwise.

She was advised by her rabbi to give matchmakers basic information about her condition, but this approach seems to have backfired. Often, Rena is set up with young men who have been through harrowing life threatening illnesses which have a good chance of recurrence. She has also been set up with men who have handicaps that greatly affect their daily lives. Rena realizes that she has been placed on the shadchanim’s “alternate list.”

This unspoken alternate list is for “tainted” individuals who have conditions that might be genetically passed down to children or who are imperfect in other obvious ways. Apparently Rena’s diabetes, which as a compliant patient has little effect on her day to day life, has rendered her damaged goods in the frum dating world.

*Malka has been having an internal battle. Her married 28 year old sister was diagnosed with early stage breast cancer and tested positive for the BRCA1 mutation gene. Word spread around the community about her sister’s diagnosis just as Malka was entering the shidduch scene. Now matchmakers are telling her that potential suitors are concerned that Malka might also have this terrible mutation – would she be willing to get tested?

It’s not that Malka hasn’t thought about getting tested for the sake of her own health, but at 21, if she tests positive, where will that leave her? No one will want to marry her with a positive result, and she will also be faced with the agonizing decision of when to have a mastectomy. Would she keep the diagnosis to herself and tempt fate by waiting to have a mastectomy until after marriage?

Even without testing and a definitive answer, she is already getting rejected based on the fear that she might harbor this defective gene. If she tests negative, then the fears will be put to rest. However, if she tests positive, her hopes of getting married will be all but ruined. Perhaps it’s better to remain in the dark if the results are positive – at least she can honestly tell anyone who asks that she doesn’t know?

I remember reading an article in the Wall Street Journal that described the Jewish organization, Dor Yeshorim. Dor Yeshorim screens unmarried Jews of European descent for recessive genetic conditions to prevent marriages between two recessive carriers. Before a couple even goes out on a date, they can call the organization with their identification numbers to check if they are compatible. If they aren’t, plans for the couple to date are abandoned.

The interesting thing about Dor Yeshorim, unlike many genetic testing services that have popped up in recent years, is their focus on privacy. In fact, the results are kept so private, that even the tested individual doesn’t know whether they have tested positive for any of the several conditions the organization screens for (such as Tay-Sachs disease, Familial dysautonomia, Cystic fibrosis, Canavan disease, Glycogen storage disease (type 1), Fanconi anemia (type C), Bloom syndrome, Niemann–Pick disease, Mucolipidosis type IV and Gaucher’s disease by request).

One of the quotes that stood out in the Wall Street Journal article was from Dor Yeshorim’s founder, Rabbi Josef Ekstein, who had four children die of Tay-Sachs disease:

Rabbi Ekstein recognizes that, in some respects, withholding all information other than people’s compatibility may seem old-fashioned in an age when technology can tell people about all kinds of genetic risks. He argues that too often, people don’t consider the “negative part of knowing” one is at risk. Everyone talks about the right to know, the rabbi says, but there should be equal attention paid to “the right not to know.”

Those who use Dor Yeshorim aren’t told for which diseases they are carriers unless they insist. Among the concerns: If word were to get out in the tightknit Orthodox community, the stigma of carrying a faulty gene might make it hard to find a spouse not just for that person, but for his or her siblings as well. And screening is done only for recessive diseases, for which each parent must contribute a faulty gene in order for a child to be affected.

At the time, I bristled at the idea that people couldn’t get access to their test results. However, seeing how the community uses medical information that hasn’t been kept private to prevent the marriage of those unfortunate enough to have a medical condition (or potential medical condition), I can understand the rationale behind Dor Yeshorim’s policy.

Think of how common it is for a young couple to be healthy upon marriage, yet with time and age, health issues crop up. What if our grandparents and parents had tests that would have warned their future spouses of the health afflictions that awaited them in future years? Would any of them have married? Would any of us have even been born? How many bayis neeman b’yisroel’s are being thwarted right now in the name of frum eugenics?

*Avi, Rena, and Malka are based on a compilation of individuals and their stories. Any similarities between the individuals described and an actual person is purely coincidental.

The stigma of not being a Virginian


When orthodox Jewish abuse cases first started appearing in the news, they invariably involved grown men abusing boys ranging from pre-pubescent children to teenagers. To read the growing collection of abuse stories, one would think that there was an unusual prevalence of homosexual proclivity among Jewish molesters.

Judging from media reports, statistically it seemed that frum men who were prone to committing sexual assaults were exclusively closeted homosexuals and pedophiles. This might be why there is the misconception among some members of the orthodox Jewish community that pedophilia and homosexuality are linked traits. Indeed, an unfortunate Op-Ed piece printed this January in the Yeshiva World and 5Towns Jewish Times entitled, “We Are Under Attack by the LGBTPed Community” emphasized this (faulty) connection.

In recent times, several high profile abuse cases have come to light involving female victims. Nechemya Weberman, sentenced to 50 years in prison for molesting a young girl he was counselling, is one such case.  Dovid Weinberger, who agreed to step down from his pulpit in the face of accusations that he seduced women coming to him for counseling, is another example. As more female victims come forward, there has been growing number of other accusations of abuse against girls and women appearing in the news.

The latest scandal concerning Elimelech Meisels, accused of sexual improprieties in his role of headmaster of four seminaries, sheds the most light on the why we might not have heard much about sexual assault cases against girls and women until recently. Several families are suing Meisels to recoup pre-paid tuition dollars after deciding to abide by the ruling of a Chicago Beis Din that the seminaries are not safe, despite Meisels stepping down as owner and operator.

The accusations laid out in the lawsuit spell out quite clearly that one of the methods of coercion used by Meisels to silence his victims was that if they reported him, he would tarnish their reputations and ruin their chances for marriage. Meaning, he would paint them as promiscuous girls and indicate that they were no longer virgins to potential matchmakers and suitors.

In the 21st century, virginity is no longer a prized possession in general society. One can argue if devaluation of chastity is a good or a bad thing. However, one can’t deny that in societies that do value chastity, it’s usually only valued for a woman. Although a broken hymen is not necessarily an indication of lost virtue (many women enjoy occasional bouts of vigorous horseback riding), varying monetary value is still given to a bride who has a whole one (besulah) and a bride whose hymen is but a distant memory.  Holding citizenship in the state of Virginia is still a highly prized status for orthodox Jewish brides.

To protect a non-Virginian woman’s dignity, I believe that the word “besulah” is read from the ketubah during the chuppah, even if the word is not actually present within the document. Of course, there is no such label, distinction, or announcement of a groom’s Virginian citizenship. Perhaps because there is no way to physically prove a man’s chastity, unlike a woman’s safety seal of approval?

My suspicion is that there have been many more cases of sexual assault and abuse against girls and women in the orthodox community than have been reported. I would venture a guess that, overall, many more females have been raped than males. However, the stigma of rape for a young woman has much more dire consequences than for a young man in frum society. If a young marriageable age woman is known not to be a besulah, it is a grave liability in the shidduch market.

If a married woman is raped, in some ways, the consequences are even more severe. If she reports a rape and has the accusation turned around on her by implying the act was consensual, than she is guilty of adultery and her husband is required to divorce her. We only have to look at the Weberman case to see how the community can turn on a victim accusing a beloved member of the clergy. These displays of support for the abuser do not go unnoticed by victims considering whether to report such crimes.

As long as there are people who will attempt to discredit victims in the name of saving the reputation of the community and maintaining the pious images of men who haven’t earned their reputations, abuse will continue to go unreported or underreported. As long as we equate rape with consensual sexual activity, victims will continue to be branded as “used goods” unsuitable for marriage.  As long as we continue the antiquated double standard that a woman’s virginity or chastity is worth more than a man’s, we will continue to have women who are too afraid to destroy their lives and reputations to report abuse.