I am on my way to Israel on El Al for a bar mitzvah of one of our Chabad members. It’s 11:30 p.m. and, along with 450 other passengers, I am trying to get as comfortable as possible for the long flight to the Holy Land. My mind is reeling; I still can’t believe what happened to me just a few hours ago.
Rabbi Zvi Konikov leads a minyan aboard his JetBlue flight.
I was regularly attending services daily, saying Kaddish in memory of my mother. JetBlue Flight 46 from Orlando to JFK, connecting to El Al to Israel presented a challenge.
The connecting flight schedules were very tight, so I arranged with my brother, Rabbi Aaron Levi Konikov, to take me from JFK to his Roslyn, N.Y. Chabad Center for afternoon services.
I had covered all possibilities or so I thought. In Yiddish, there’s an expression, "A mensch tracht un Gut lacht" ("Man proposes and God disposes"). This was a perfect example. We were supposed to depart Orlando at 4:15 p.m., but the captain announced a 90-minute delay due to bad weather.
I had not missed saying one Kaddish since my mother died 10 months ago. What to do? Worried, I thought of a solution. I’ll exit the plane. I’ll miss the flight, I can always rebook, but I can’t miss Kaddish.
"Excuse me," I asked a stewardess. "I have an important meeting in New York and if I can’t make it in person, I must leave the plane now."
"I’m sorry," she replied politely. "We cannot return to the gate. We are on the runway waiting to take off. There are planes ahead and planes in back of us. We cannot move. It’s impossible." Oh, well. I tried.
Thirty minutes passed and we were going nowhere. Every few seconds, I looked at my watch and calculated our earliest possible arrival time.
Another 15 minutes passed. I realized I must do something, but what?
Suddenly, a crazy thought dawned on me. Maybe there are enough Jews on this flight to make a minyan! It was my only hope.
"Before I make a scene, I’ll check my chances of success," I told myself. Trying to be inconspicuous, I got up from my seat "to stretch" and walked up and down the aisles looking for "Jewish faces." Alas, only the guy in the last seat had a Jewish face. And I wasn’t even sure about him. Was I dreaming or was I so desperate that I imagined that he looked Jewish? I gathered my courage and asked him straight out. "Are you Jewish?" I almost hit the roof when he answered, "Yes." Quickly, I explained that I had to say Kaddish for my mother and needed a minyan. He understood. "Count me in when you get 10," he replied. Then he resumed his reclining position in front of the TV, nodding his head slightly to wish me good luck.
Bolstered by my success, I identified the next "Jewish face," and before I knew it, we were up to four. Each person commented, "I’m not religious" or "I don’t know how to pray." Still, they were willing to help.
The minutes continued to tick by, but I had run into a brick wall. That was it for Jewish faces.
How many people who looked Puerto Rican could possibly be Jewish? Should I call it a day? Give up? Seat by seat I made my plea, but this time a little bit different than before. "Excuse me, is anyone in your party Jewish?" I asked. And the unbelievable was happening. Once in a while, the answer was, "Yes, he is," or "Yes, I am."
By this time, I had seven! Only three more to go. Surprisingly, one of JetBlue’s managers was sitting in a regular seat. "Can I help you?" he asked. I thought that he was just following the customer service routine. But when I explained my predicament he immediately sprang into action to help me. I started to sing the JetBlue advertising jingle in my head.
Amazingly, he offered to make an announcement asking for volunteers over the public address system.
"Thank you," I answered. "But I’m going to try to do this low profile."
"Excuse me," the man across from the aisle spoke up. "I overheard your conversation. I am Jewish." Now we had eight! I was beginning to believe it would happen. I continued my search. I began to get excited at the prospect of a miraculous minyan. But a bunch of people saying "sorry" and "no" brought me back to reality. One passenger who really wanted to help but wasn’t Jewish said to me, "My buddy is half-Jewish."
Hopefully, I asked his friend, "Are you Jewish?"
"No. Not really," he answered.
Disappointed, I turned to walk away. "But my grandmother was Jewish!" he added. I turned and asked, "Your mother’s mother?" "Yeah, but that doesn’t make me Jewish, does it?" "You bet it does," I told him.
"Neat! Just like that, I find out I’m Jewish! Maybe the delay was worth it, just for that," he said.
At "T Minus One Yid And Counting," I was roaring down the aisle with confidence now, ready to launch this nearly made minyan. By this time, no one on the plane had any doubts as to what was happening. Every so often the manager would call out to me, "How many are we up to?" When I told him we were at nine, he radioed to the cockpit and asked if any of the crew was Jewish. "Negative," came the reply.
At this point, everyone wanted to help, but the situation seemed hopeless. I had already gone through every seat twice and the dark reality seemed to be settling in that there were only nine male Jews over the age of 13 on this plane.
As I was making my way back to my seat, crestfallen, someone who felt very sorry for me stopped me and said: "I have a Jewish friend in Georgia who I can call on a conference; will that work?" I explained and thanked him anyway. (As if I didn’t know a few Jews myself that I could phone!)
I called my brother, Rabbi Yosef Konikov of Chabad of South Orlando, telling him the whole story. "You won’t believe this: we’ve got nine people for this minyan! But that’s really it," I said anxiously. "You’re a chaplain in the Sheriff’s Department. Maybe you can get a police escort to the plane, or maybe you can get someone Jewish from security to come out here and get onto the plane with us."
He said he would try, but didn’t sound hopeful. Time and the odds were both working against us.
"If I don’t make this minyan after getting nine Yidden on this flight, what a let-down it will be," I said to myself. and to the One Above.
Mentally, I was preparing myself for exactly that let-down because I had run out of options. I returned to my seat, just waiting to see what would happen next.
A few seconds passed before the passenger right behind me cleared his throat and confessed, "I’m really sorry, but earlier, when I told you I was not Jewish, I wasn’t telling the truth. I was just very intimidated. I really am Jewish."
My eyes became as wide as saucers. At first, I thought that he was pulling my leg. Either that, or he was just trying to be nice because he saw how desperate I was. I was suspicious, and I knew I had to do a little questioning. "Is your mother Jewish?" I asked conversationally (as if I had all the time in the world).
"Absolutely," he responded. "Her maiden name is Horowitz. You can’t get more Jewish than that."
Then he added, "There’s no question, I even know ‘Barchu es Hashem.’"
Everyone around me became giddy with excitement. I signaled my loyal and devoted JetBlue manager who was sitting about 10 rows behind me.
"It’s a go!" I cried, "We’ve got 10!" You would have thought he had just won the Lotto, that’s how happy he was for me.
The manager invited me to meet with the stewardesses at the back of the plane. He wanted to make sure that the minyan would go smoothly. I went back and told them that there really wasn’t much that I needed, and that I did not want to inconvenience them whatsoever. I suggested that they finish serving the beverages before we started so we wouldn’t get in their way. Other than that, I told them that the afternoon prayer would take between seven and nine minutes altogether. I also thanked them for all their help and understanding.
The manager offered to let me know once they finished making their rounds through the plane. He would also help me gather my nine volunteers.
As soon as I got the word from the manager, I started going down the aisles "picking up" people. (I was hoping I’d remember who they were! I did.)
It didn’t take very long before a line of Jews was walking behind me towards the back. About three rows before the end of the plane, I noticed a face that I had missed. "He certainly looks Jewish," I thought. "With all these unknown people, maybe it’s best to have 11 men, just in case." So I stopped and asked him, "Are you Jewish?"
He said, "Yes, but look, you’re holding up the aisle! All these people want to get by!"
I said, "These people are my minyan." Astonished, he quickly got into the spirit: "Well then, I’m coming, too!"
The atmosphere at the back of the plane was electric and ecstatic. The Jewish men were giving each other "high fives." You would have thought they had just won the NBA title! We packed into the tiny galley/kitchen in the back of the plane.
The stewardesses barely had room to stand with us, so I politely suggested that they stand in front of us "to make sure no one disturbs the service." They happily obliged.
Before the minyan started, I briefed the non-religious members about what we were going to do. From their blank looks, it appeared as if only three of the 11 had ever participated in a minyan before. While my main objective was to say Kaddish, I didn’t want the experience for these secular Jews to be just a "lip-service." So I took the opportunity to say a quick short word on the concept of prayer.
"Prayer is not restricted to a particular place but can be done anywhere, from the privacy of your own room to a JetBlue plane that is stuck on the runway," I told them. Then I got to the nitty-gritty.
"Since JetBlue does not, as yet, have 10 prayer books for in-flight services, I will lead the service in Hebrew by heart. The only thing I ask is that you say ‘amen’ at the right time."
"How will we know when it’s the right time if you’re saying it in Hebrew?" one passenger asked logically. It was a good question. "I will give you the thumbs-up when it’s time," I responded.
I took my kippah from under my hat and handed it to one of the men nearest me. The rest of the men made themselves at home in the kitchen and distributed kippahs (napkins) compliments of JetBlue.
The scene was awesome.
A stewardess asked if she could take a picture of us in prayer and I told her I had no problem with that at all. Without further delay, I launched our minyan. On the outside, I felt like a million bucks when I gave my first thumbs-up! Inside, I was all choked up in gratitude to God.
The amens were loud and emphatic. This bunch was definitely not shy or embarrassed about their heritage. Suddenly, I felt like I was back in camp leading bunk competition! The whole plane was buzzing. Napkin-covered men shouting amen at each thumbs-up of this ancient-looking rabbi as a stewardess snapped pictures. It was definitely not the typical scene in a JetBlue advertisement.
Despite the obvious humor of the situation, the men seemed quite touched, and stayed focused and serious throughout the prayers. I finished the davening quickly and thanked everyone profusely for their time. Then we returned to our seats.
Almost immediately, the pilot announced that the hold was over. In minutes we would be departing for JFK. The feeling was incredible. It was almost as if the minyan had been part of the schedule. Clearly, the minyan was part of the schedule that God keeps for us.
After the plane was in the air, one of the Jews from the minyan came over to my aisle seat.
With tears in his eyes, he said, "I am totally uninvolved in Judaism and I want to thank you deeply for this awesome reminder of my heritage!"
Now it was my turn to be humbled. How one mitzvah leads to the next! What an unbelievable way to start my trip to the Holy Land.
Later, my wife and I discussed the incredible story. We agreed that although this year of Kaddish had a number of novel stories and extremely close calls, this one was on a "plane" by itself.
My wife didn’t hesitate to tell her sisters in New York what had just happened. They, of course, repeated it to their husbands. One of them, Rabbi Levi Baumgarten, serves as the "Mitzvah Tank Rabbi" (Chabad Mitzvah Mobile) in Manhattan. He met one of his steady "customers" a week later in the Mitzvah Tank. This customer was a very successful businessman working for Cushman & Wakefield.
As he stepped into the Mitzvah Tank, he said to Rabbi Baumgarten, "Do I have a story to tell you! I just heard from my JetBlue associates. They were returning from a big corporate meeting in Orlando last Tuesday and a rabbi was on the plane."
Levi smiled. "Let me finish the story…."
"But how?" he asked, dumbfounded by the rabbi’s certainty.
Levi replied, "All Jews are connected; the Jewish world, and especially the Chabad world, is very small, and we are all brothers. Actually, the rabbi who needed the minyan on JetBlue last week is my brother-in-law!"
Rabbi Zvi Konikov serves as spiritual leader and director of Chabad of the Space & Treasure Coasts in Satellite Beach, Fla. His brother is Rabbi Meir Konikov of the Chabad of Fort Lee. Their mother, Bas-Sheva (who was also known as Barbie), lived in Englewood.