May 23, 2024
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Illuminating the Journey With Unity

By Rabbi Ephraim Epstein

It was a travel day much like ones in the past as we packed up our suitcases in Jerusalem, made a few goodbye visits and headed off to the airport to fly back from Tel Aviv to Newark. Our final visit to the Kotel was heartfelt and a little more poignant than usual since it was Rosh Chodesh Av. While reciting Veli Yerushalayim and Et Tzemach Dovid Avdicha, it was easier to connect to these two blessings as the Nine Days and their restrictions set in.

After a flight delay and a transfer to a new airline on an earlier flight, we advanced to the airport in time to check in. B”H we boarded, however the captain shared on the microphone that there were some technical problems that may or may not be fixed, and the mechanics were working diligently to solve the problem. An hour later it was reported that the malfunction was fixed and off we went. Until three hours later, when we were suddenly informed that we needed to make an emergency landing in Rome. Upon landing safely, thank God, we were informed that a new plane was being flown in from Israel and in a few hours, we would reboard the new plane. In the meantime, we were entitled to provisions from the eateries at the food court in the Rome airport.

The three hundred or so passengers (mostly religious Jews) begrudgingly descended from the plane only to find out that the only kosher food available was water and coffee, and a few hours morphed into 11 long, boring and uncomfortable hours that went by very slowly. The most difficult thing was not knowing if, when or how we would find our way back on a plane to Newark.

However, there was some light amidst the darkness. Upon entering the airport, we reckoned that Netz (sunrise) was at 5:52 a.m. in under an hour, and we would have the opportunity to daven Shacharit together at this holy time.

There were Chasidim, Bnei Yeshiva, Sefardim, Ashkenazim, Modern Orthodox all mixed together. Some thought we should move to a more private area to daven, but it was decided we should remain in the center of the grand walkway so all those on the plane would be able to see us when arriving and participate in this unique and supernal service.

I wondered: Who would lead? What nusach would we daven? I then found out that there were two brothers with torn shirts who had just buried their father and were in the middle of shiva; one of them would lead. Since there were some Sephardi Kohanim, we had the privilege of receiving Birkat Kohanim. Some Chasidish fellows claimed that they would not say Tachanun without an Aron Kodesh, so we skipped Tachanun. While we were davening, there were scores of Italian travelers walking by, fascinated with the sight of almost 100 men donning tallit and tefillin, praying in unity. It was an incredible experience.

By the end of the davening, we all felt a close connection to one another. The mourners sat low to the ground, and many came forward to comfort them. I stood back and marveled that on the week before Tisha B’Av we were stranded in the land of Titus (his arch not far away), and we unified in prayer as if we were in the Beit Hamikdash. There were no Ashkenaz, Sephardi, Chasidic, Yeshivish or Modern Orthodox in the times of the Temples. There was one unifying service, just like in our minyan at the Rome-Fiumicino International Airport.

Almost 11 hours later we reboarded the plane and successfully flew to Newark. There were seniors and young parents with babies on the flight, along with the rest of us. Despite our frustrations and disappointment of losing a day and being cooped up at Gate 39 in an Italian airport, many of us felt we achieved something special that day. As we descended from the plane in Newark it was only natural to provide a Mincha minyan for the mourners as well. Afterwards we all scattered in different directions to find our rides or connecting flights, but the strength and energy of the beautiful and unifying Netz Minyan has stayed with me ever since.

As we prepare for Tisha B’Av 5783, unfortunately there is no shortage of divisions among our people. The most glaring example is the massive protesting in Israel for and against the judicial reforms. However, there are disputes that plague every community, synagogue, Jewish school and family.

Perhaps it’s time to realize that we are all on this journey in time together. We have been waylaid in a state of exile for almost 2,000 years. The Talmud is clear in laying the blame for our exile and the Second Temple’s destruction on disunity and baseless hatred. If we want Hashem to protect us from the harm and terror perpetrated by our unpeaceful neighbors, then we need to exhibit and embrace peace among ourselves.

As individuals we may not be able to solve large organizational and national conflicts, but if each of us establishes peace in our own family and friend circles, it will be contagious, and there’s no end to the light and goodness that can develop.

Just as the 300 passengers felt we were all in it together on a journey back to our homes and families, so too all of klal Yisrael is on a journey back to our homeland. We will get there when we join together as one as it says in the liturgy of Shabbat Mincha—Atoh Echad Veshimcha Echad Umei Kiamcha Goy Echad Ba’aretz. God, You are one, Your name is one, and who is like Your nation Israel, One unified nation on the earth.

It stands to reason that when we achieve the unity described in the tefillah, we will merit experiencing the ultimate unity of God throughout the world, and particularly in the Beit Hamikdash, Amen.


Rabbi Ephraim Epstein, who grew up in Northern New Jersey, is currently the scholar in residence at the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey. He aims to reach Jews of all backgrounds through classes, lectures, workshops, essays and articles sharing the glory, truth and magnificence of Torah and klal Yisrael. Prior to this, he was the senior rabbi at Congregation Sons of Israel, Cherry Hill, New Jersey, for over 20 years.

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