Rabbi Chaim Zvi KonikovI am the shliach, the representative of the Lubavitcher Rebbe in the town of Satellite Beach, on the coast of Florida, near Cape Kennedy from where they launch the satellites.
Upon the passing of my mother of blessed memory over a year ago, I was faced with the dilemma of how to recite Kaddish three times a day in a town where there's no daily minyan. There's no traditional shul except our "Chabad of the Space Coast" Center, and our primary focus was on Torah classes.
Nevertheless, with my mother's merit and example of determination, and my dear wife's marathon phone calls, we put together daily morning and evening minyanim which are going strong for over a year now, though not without challenges, as you will soon read. Besides the great feeling of accomplishment, we received a bonus from our local Bell South Telephone Company for signing up so many new Caller ID customers! (Just kidding.)
Like Jews all over the world who are saying Kaddish, I attend shacharis, mincha, and maariv (morning, afternoon and evening services), without fail. The only difference is that I need not only to attend but also to bring nine others there with me. Sometimes this presents a challenge.
Traveling to Israel from Satellite Beach, which has to take at least fifteen to twenty hours with stopovers, was one of those challenging times. I, therefore, had arranged my arrival in New York early enough to catch mincha at the Rebbe's Ohel, at the cemetery in Queens, which is near JFK. If necessary, I could even take a taxi to Crown Heights, pray mincha there and still make my El Al flight to Israel at 11 PM. (I wasn't worried about maariv because I knew there would be other observant Jews on the El Al flight.)
The trip from Satellite Beach to the Orlando airport takes about an hour. I was exhausted from a very strenuous week running Chabad activities, so a friend kindly drove me to the airport. Instead of relaxing in the car, I used the time to confirm mincha arrangements at the Ohel. The person I spoke with hesitated to guarantee a minyan, so I called my brother, Rabbi Aaron Levi Konikov, a Chabad rabbi in Roslyn, New York, which is just a twenty-minute drive from the Ohel. Aaron Levi arranged for a driver to pick me up at JFK and take me directly to his Chabad Center minyan.
I had covered all the possibilities - or so I thought. In Yiddish, there's an expression, "Ah mench tracht un G-t lacht." "Man proposes and G-d disposes." This was a perfect example. My Jet Blue flight 46 to JFK was scheduled to depart Orlando at 4:15 P.M. However, as soon as we got on the runway, the captain announced a 90-minute delay on all flights into New York due to bad weather. In an hour and a half, we would know more. But for now, we had to sit on the plane.
I started to worry. Since my mother passed away ten and a half months ago, I had not missed saying one Kaddish. And now this! Still, there was time; and if there is one thing that I have learned by living in a small town like Satellite Beach, and trying to get minyanim every day, it's not to panic. After all, I had encountered a number of close calls over the year, but each time I had managed to get my minyan and say Kaddish.
However, as I reflected on my situation, I realized that there was a great difference. There, I could move around, pick people up in my car, call on friends, and call on friends of friends. Even on Shabbos when we can't use the phone, I could always walk down the road to the shopping center, when we were in a bind, and look for a Jew (or two) there. (One Friday night I picked up our tenth man coming out of the movie theater.
Outside Blockbuster was another favorite hangout of mine on those tight Friday nights. Spying through the large window with full garb, Kapota and all, might have looked like a scene straight from the movies, but it sure paid off when the Jew waiting on line to pay realized there was someone waiting for him at the door.) But here on the plane, I was stuck with nowhere to go. Worry set in, so I began looking for a solution.
Suddenly, one came. I'll demand to exit the plane! I will miss the flight, I can always rebook, and I can't miss Kaddish. I was determined. I knew it would be hard to get off the plane since we were already far from the terminal. Nevertheless, I had to try.
"Excuse me," I said to a stewardess. "I have an important meeting in New York and if I cannot 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.
About 30 minutes passed and we were going nowhere in a hurry. The stewardess began handing out refreshments. Then the pilot came out and offered his cell phone to let passengers call their family and friends.
Every few seconds, I looked at my watch and calculated our earliest possible arrival time. I called another brother, Rabbi Yosef Konikov, of Chabad of South Orlando. At this point, my problem was not finding a minyan at his Chabad Center (25 minutes from the Orlando Airport) or even at the airport. My problem was simply getting there! I looked at my watch again. Another 15 minutes had passed. I realized it was time for action. I must do something and now, I thought. But what?
Suddenly, a crazy thought dawned on me. Maybe there are enough Jews on this flight to make a minyan! After all, we're flying to New York, and although I hadn't noticed any religious Jews, 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. I reached the back of the plane. 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 ten," 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 nose." Before I knew it, we were up to four! Of course, each 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? I couldn't return to my seat as something (or someone above) kept pushing me.
Aisle by aisle I made my plea, but this time a little bit different than before. "Excuse me," I asked people, "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 Jet Blue'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 and he immediately sprung into action to help me, I started to sing the Jet Blue advertising jingle in my head. Amazingly, he offered to make an announcement asking for volunteers over the PA 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 out. "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!"
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 Yosef again. "You won't believe this: we've got nine! 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." Yosef said he would try, but he didn't sound too 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 letdown 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 Boruch Atoh Ad---noy - Borchu es Hashem..."
Everyone around me became giddy with excitement. I signaled my loyal and devoted Jet Blue manager who was sitting about ten rows behind me. "It's a go!" I cried, "We've got ten!" 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 eleven 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.
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 eleven people had ever participated in a minyan before. While my main objective was to say Kaddish, I didn't want the experience for these 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 Jet Blue plane that is stuck on the runway," I told them. Then I got to the nitty-gritty. "Since Jet Blue 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 yarmulke 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 kipas (napkins) compliments of Jet Blue. 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. Outside, I felt like a million bucks when I gave my first thumbs-up! Inside, I was all choked up in gratitude to Hashem.
The Amens were loud and emphatic. This bunch was definitely not shy or embarrassed of 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 Jet Blue 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 was part of the schedule. Clearly, the minyan was part of the schedule that Hashem 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!