Interview with the Tefillin Terrorist

My cousin, the national security threat

I never expected to see my 17-year old cousin on the evening news. But there he was, Caleb Liebowitz of White Plains, New York—finishing his last semester at the Marsha Stern Talmudical Academy and accused of being a terrorist. While flying from New York to Louisville on Chautauqua Airlines Flight 3079 two weeks ago, Caleb was stopped by security personnel and questioned as the plane made an emergency landing in Philadelphia—all because he decided to put on tefillin.

Caleb’s story highlighted the current tensions involved with air travel and the capacity of the Jewish community to put a positive spin on an unfortunate incident. Here’s the story, in his own words.

JG: What went through your mind when the flight attendant began asking questions about your tefillin?

CL: I didn’t think anything of it. I wasn’t sure if she was concerned or just curious. She asked what the boxes were and went away.

JG: So what happened in Philadelphia?

CL: They told us [to] put our hands on the seat in front of us, which we did. They had a gun out, which was pretty scary. We were seated in row five, and they said ‘Where’s seat 4E?’ and they go searching a guy right in front of us. Then they said ‘No no no, get the guy with the yarmulke, the guy with the yarmulke.”

JG: Has this been a learning experience?

CL: It’s been pretty surreal. Many in Chabad think that I’m a hero because tefillin became one of the top searches on Google. Some people think I showed poor judgment, that I expected [the flight attendant] to be familiar with the ritual of tefillin, which is not true. I expected her not to think that anything that was not familiar to her was a bomb.

JG: Do you think this would have happened before the underwear bomber of Northwest Airlines flight 253?

CL: Probably she was influenced by that fact that the last few bombing attempts had been stopped not by airport security but by other passengers. She must have been pretty scared because everyone is wondering why she didn’t try to restrain me or take the tefillin after I put them away. The only reason I can think of is that she thought if she moved near me, I would set it off.”

JG: How has this incident helped the Jewish community? What has their response been?

CL: Some people say that I have inspired them to put on tefillin. I consider that a positive effect.

JG: You now know more about US aviation security than most people. Are current security measures okay?

CL: “The Agudath Israel Organization has been distributing information to the airlines on what practices Orthodox Jews do that look suspicious, but are totally fine. Maybe now, more airlines will see this literature.”

JG: You wear a yamulke, which makes it pretty clear that you are Jewish. Supporters of racial profiling may argue that this event would have been prevented if profiling were an accepted practice. Should the US adopt racial profiling?

CL: I don’t agree with profiling. It is pretty much the definition of racism.

JG: What’s it like having your 15 minutes of fame?

CL: I’m eagerly awaiting the end of the 15 minutes.


2 Older Responses to “Interview with the Tefillin Terrorist”

  1. Phil
    February 2, 2010 at 1:16 am #

    Nice article!
    Two critiques, one a bit light-hearted:
    “You wear a yamulke, which makes it pretty clear that you are Jewish.”
    I’m just concerned about Muslim terrorists pretending to be Jews.
    “Interview with the Tefillin Terrorist”
    Any chance of putting that last word in quotation marks?

  2. Jiffy
    February 3, 2010 at 6:51 am #

    Nice article. One comment:
    Racial profiling has been very successfully implemented by El-Al and has been in use for decades. To-date it has proven to be the most successful method of preventing Terrorist acts in or around the airplane.
    I totally disagree with Caleb’s comment that racial profiling equates to racism, in the context of airway security and passenger safety.
    Political-correctness has bounds too! I rather be politically incorrect and alive than…

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