Flight 84 from Newark to Tel Aviv is a full flight. “How many bags are you checking?” asks the Continental counter agent at Newark Airport. “One,” I say. She shoots me a dirty look while eyeballing the oversized duffel on wheels. “What about that one?” she snorts with a stern finger point. “That can’t be checked, it has to stay with me,” I insist. The expected confrontations, explanations, education, and revelations have begun.
As if following a script, she hands me the next line, “What’s in there?” soon to be sorry she asked. I am prepared. “It’s a Torah, a sacred scroll. It is the holiest object to the Jewish people. We are bringing it to Israel as a gift to a community that recently experienced a tragedy. Besides being very valuable, there are strict rules about how it can be carried and stored. It cannot touch the ground.”
Too much information for Ms. Sanchez. I need a shorter briefing for the next gatekeeper. There will be more opportunities. Ms. Sanchez says we need to talk to a security supervisor with TSA. I am traveling with Ronni and Fred Pressman, fellow congregants and dear friends. Their son, Randy, made aliyah almost two years ago and he would join us at Beit Oren to take photos, if we, and the Torah, ever make it there.
We are off to the next challenge, Gina Anderson, deputy supervisor, TSA. Gina has acquired more knowledge than her predecessor— no doubt befitting her elevated rank. “Yes,” she says quickly, almost insulted with my question, “I know what a Torah is. I dated a Jewish guy for a while and he taught me a bunch of Jewish stuff.”
She is helpful, but resigned to the limits of her authority. “I can only take you through the security checkpoint. After that, it is up to the Continental people at the gate. Do you have a plan B?”
“Not really,” I say feebly. She gives me that look that says, “Big mistake. You always need a plan B.” I look back with a shoulder shrug and open hands which says we have made it this far and will take our chances at the gate. After all, we are counting on help from a Higher Power.
Gina hands us off to Cooper at the security scanners. He examines us, our shoes, and the Torah. Every Torah inquiry is under our constant supervision, and executed very discreetly and very respectfully. There is lots of training kicking in for the TSA folks involved in this inspection detail. You could tell no one wanted a news story or a First Amendment violation. After assuring himself that the Torah could not be used as a weapon, Cooper hands us off to Cesar, the Continental gate attendant. Cesar does not know what a Torah is.
“Remember Sunday school…Genesis, Exodus?” I invite Cesar, taking a calculated risk based on the large crucifix hanging around his neck. “It is like that, except it is on a big scroll, written over a hundred years ago on animal parchment. It took the man who wrote it more than a year.” He doesn’t get it. I explain that the Torah cannot go in the overhead compartment, that one of the closets they use in first class or even for the crew will be best — so long as it remains upright for the entire flight. I will need to check on it periodically during the flight and nothing else can go in the closet after I put it in. This seems like a tall order for Cesar.
“OK, this is up to the senior flight attendant on board. If they say it is O.K. with them, then it is O.K. with me and you can do it.” Then, when I think we are cruising to the finish line, he stops me cold, “What’s plan B?” Again with the plan B. Instead of confessing my lack of an alternative, I am beginning to lose the patience I had been managing so well up to this point. I decide to take the offensive.
“OK,” I say, “who is this person who has the final say on whether or not this Torah makes it to Israel, to people who have suffered loss, whose souls are aching for spiritual uplift? Who gets to decide the fate of this Torah? He raises his clipboard and flips to the second page. He reads me the name, “Kenny Rubinstein.” “Baruch Hashem,” escapes from my lips, perhaps too loudly. “No,” he says, “Kenny Rubinstein.” “Yes, I know,” I say smiling, “can we talk with him now?”
“A sefer Torah? What’s it for?” Kenny is genuinely excited about being part of our mitzvah story and is thoughtful and accommodating. He lives in Nutley and knows Temple Ner Tamid. We exchange numbers and e-mail and invite him to join us for a Shabbat. Another beautiful connection from this Fire Torah with more to come.
Next week: The Jewish Spark in the Aftermath of the Fire, Part III