Rabbi Yehuda Kantor, of Chabad of Westport, said that if he hadn't just returned from a trip to Israel earlier this month, he'd board the next flight out of JFK to Tel Aviv.
"I absolutely would do it," Kantor said Wednesday, hours before heading to an Israel solidarity rally in Stamford.
To do that, however, he'd most likely have to take El Al, the national airline of Israel. For at least another day, the Israeli-based airline is the only commercial airline flying directly in and out of Israel from the U.S., since the Federal Aviation Administration on Tuesday banned U.S. airlines from flying to Israel's Ben Gurion International Airport. On Wednesday, the FAA extended the ban for another 24 hours before lifting it just before midnight.
Although the ban applied only to U.S. operators, at least eight other international carriers had canceled flights to Israel, out of concern for safety amid an escalating conflict there.
The temporary measure came a week after a Malaysian commercial jet was shot out of the skies over the Ukraine and days after a Hamas rocket struck too close for comfort near Ben Gurion airport, as an Israeli military assault on Gaza continues. The U.S. State Department also issued a warning against travel to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, due to current hostilities.
Still, those who were determined found a way to Israel.
Rabbi Jeremy Wiederhorn, the leader of The Conservative Synagogue in Westport, is among 40 rabbis and lay persons traveling in Israel with the Rabbinical Assembly and Masorti Foundation.
"Our mission was to bring good spirits to the Israeli community," Wiederhorn said "We want to show them that we support them physically and spiritually. We like to say we speak with our feet."
They met Wednesday with the mother of one of three Yeshiva students who were kidnapped and murdered last month --an incident that sparked the violence between Israel and the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip.
Pledging their support
Wiederhorn was among three Westporters on the mission. He and lay people Orna Stern and Larry Kleinman arrived Monday in Israel and planned to leave Thursday. The group is flying on El Al, so their plans have not been interrupted.
Meanwhile, hundreds attended a pro-Israel rally Wednesday at the Jewish Community Center on Newfield Avenue in Stamford. Attendees wore yarmulkes and "I love Israel" stickers, and waved Israel flags.
"We are here to affirm Israel's right to protect itself," said Daniel Cohen, senior rabbi at Congregation Agudath Sholom. "We are here to mobilize our efforts in this historic time. Israel's fight is America's fight."
Cohen also hoped for the quick restoration of airline flights to Israel, which came late Wednesday. Read Full Article
"The airports to Israel must be open," he said to loud cheers from the rally's attendants. "Israel is ready for peace. We need to know that America stands behind. We need to make sure that we stand strong."
Temple Beth El Rabbi Joshua Hammerman had been scheduled to land in Israel yesterday with a group of 27 congregants, but the group decided late last week to postpone its pilgrimage.
"I would go in a second, but the group decided it wasn't the right time," Hammerman said. "I have no fear of security at Ben Gurion airport. It's a multi-layered security system -- one of the best in the world."
The rally included prayers for the Israeli soldiers who have been killed since the start of the conflict as well as prayers for the safety of local Jews currently serving in the Israel Defense Forces.
"This is truly a historic moment of uniting together in our common love for Israel," Hammerman said. "We Jews who grieve at the loss of all innocent life hope the world will see Hamas for the blatant hypocrisy that it is, and will back Israel."
Mayor David Martin attended the rally and read aloud from a letter he received from the Israel consulate in New York, which asked him to condemn Hamas and voice support for Israel.
"I strongly condemn Hamas' constant barrage of rockets that are terrorizing Israel," Martin said. "I too stand with Israel, which has a legitimate right to self-defend."
Stamford resident Lisa Goldberg attended Wednesday's rally wearing an Israeli flag around her shoulders.
"I think it's very important to show our support and that Israel feels the support from American Jews, as well," she said.
Goldberg said Hamas is using the media to spread its propaganda, and that Israel's efforts to avoid civilian casualties have not been adequately reported. She pointed to the fact that Israeli forces have been calling houses and telling occupants to evacuate before bombing.
"Israel is doing everything it can to reduce the number of lives lost on both sides," Goldberg said. "But when Hamas hides their rockets in schools and hospitals -- that information isn't as widely reported. Israel isn't for anything but peace, but we have a right to protect and defend ourselves."
Finding alternate routes
Away from the rally, Rabbi Josph Gopin's son Dov, 22, was leaving for Israel late Wednesday on a Russian airline, which will fly into Russia with a connecting flight into Tel Aviv where Dov, traveling with another student, will continue his studies.
"That was the plan," said Gopin, of Chabad in Hartford.
The rabbi added that he had no concerns about the safety of his son, even as the conflict between Israel and Hamas rages on.
"None at all," he said.
Neither does Kantor, he said. For the past 11 years he has led an annual men's trip to Israel and often goes a second time each year on his own.
His last trip, which ended with a July 9 return flight on United Airlines, however, was the first time ever that Kantor experienced a "code red."
"We were (at) Ra'anana and the alarm went off," Kantor said. "We jumped up. A teenager was screaming at the proprietor `Where is the safe house?' He said, `We don't have one.'
The boy "was really agitated," kantor said. "We went away from the windows. When it stopped, the restaurant emptied out. Everyone went home, to be with their families.
Even so, Kantor said, he was surprised by the U.S. airlines' flight ban. He said a decision on whether to fly to Israel should have been up to individual travelers. He said he knows several families that have canceled their trips.
Kantor said he was gratified to see that former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg traveled into Israel on an El Al flight Wednesday in a show of solidarity.
Rabbi Colin Brodie, of Congregation B'Nai Torah in Trumbull, said he knows of no one who has altered travel plans because of the ongoing conflict.
"There are groups of rabbis in Israel. All the (United Synagogue Youth) groups are still in Israel, and I believe the same is true for the other movements and programs ... I don't know of one single person who has come home early," he said.
Rabbi Shlame Landa, of the Chabad Lubavitch of Fairfield, said he would fly to Israel in a heartbeat.
On its website, El Al Airlines said it will continue to "keep Israel's skies open" and has expanded its call center to assist travelers who wish to alter their flight plans.
Staff writer Anne Amato contributed to this report.
There are usually 10 flights daily from the U.S. to Israel.
In 2013, 622,767 people traveled to Israel from the U.S.
In the first six months of 2014, that number was 398,651
Source: Israeli Ministry of Tourism