PHILADELPHIA — A Jewish teenager trying to pray on a New York-to-Kentucky flight caused a scare Thursday when he pulled out a set of small boxes containing holy scrolls, leading the captain to divert the flight to Philadelphia, where the commuter plane was greeted by police, bomb-sniffing dogs and federal agents.
The 17-year-old on US Airways Express Flight 3079 was using tefillin, a set of small boxes containing biblical passages that are attached to leather straps, Philadelphia police Lt. Frank Vanore said.
When used in prayer, one box is strapped to the arm while the other box is placed on the head.
"It's something that the average person is not going to see very often, if ever," FBI spokesman J.J. Klaver said.
The teen explained the ritual after being questioned by crew members of the flight, which had left LaGuardia Airport around 7:30 a.m. headed for Louisville and was operated by Chautauqua Airlines, authorities said.
Officials with the airline, however, said crew members "did not receive a clear response" when they talked with the teen, according to a statement issued by Republic Airways, which owns Chautauqua.
"Therefore, in the interest of everyone's safety, the crew decided to land in Philadelphia, where a more complete investigation and follow-up with authorities would be possible," the statement said.
The flight landed in Philadelphia about 9 a.m. without incident and was met by police, bomb-sniffing dogs and officials from the FBI and Transportation Security Administration.
‘They were more alarmed than we were’
Authorities said the plane was searched and passengers were questioned. The teen, who is from White Plains, N.Y., and was traveling with his 16-year-old sister, was very cooperative, Vanore said.
"They were more alarmed than we were," Vanore said.
Klaver said the teen and his sister were never in custody and were cleared to continue their travels.
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The teen's grandmother, who was waiting for him at Louisville International Airport, said the early flight left no time to pray before leaving New York.
"He hadn't had the opportunity to pray, so that is why he did it on the plane," Frances Winchell said.
She said the episode was traumatic for the boy, whose mother requested that he not give interviews.
"But in any event," she added, "all's well that ends well, and maybe some good will come to the world because of it."
The teen, who belongs to the congregation Young Israel of White Plains, is "a brilliant student" from "the sweetest family," said Shmuel Greenberg, the synagogue's rabbi.
The morning prayer ritual is supposed to take place within a few hours of sunrise, so it's understandable that the teen was doing it on the plane, Greenberg said.
‘Aware of ignorance’
Binding the boxes of holy scrolls to the arm and head serves as "a reminder for the person that their actions during the day, and what they think about during the day, should be on a level of holiness and should inspire them to do productive, good things," he said.
The rabbi said he could see how someone unfamiliar with the tefillin could be alarmed.
"Security today is a serious issue. You can't become educated up in the air," Greenberg said. "I can definitely see a pilot or a crew that never saw it before in today's environment be very, very concerned."
Another rabbi, however, said tefillin have been used for thousands of years and he found it hard to believe no one recognized it. Benjamin Blech, an assistant professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University in New York, said he found the incident "both humorous and outlandish" and called it a "wake-up call" for religious sensitivity.
"We should be aware of ignorance just as much as we should be aware of terrorism," he said.
Concerns about passengers carrying bombs have been heightened since a Nigerian man was accused of trying to blow up a Detroit-bound Northwest Airlines flight using explosives concealed in his pants on Christmas Day.
The Republic statement said the airline would use Thursday's event "to further strengthen our commitment to both security and customer service."
The flight was carrying 15 passengers and three crew members; travelers were rebooked on other flights, US Airways spokesman Morgan Durrant said.
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