An elderly couple from New York City was kicked off of an American Airlines flight after they refused to place bags with tefillin and a prayer shawl inside of them on the floor, according to a lawsuit.
The New York Post reported that Roberto and Elana Birman were flying back to New York from Miami on Flight 322 in August when the “humiliating” occurred, they told The Post.
Roberto, 76, and Elana, 71, flew with only one briefcase, a purse, and his bag containing the Tallit — an 8.5 inch-by-8.5-inch carrier. The case was transparent making it easy to see his siddur (prayer book) and tallit (prayer shawl). The two were seated in aisle seats opposite each other.
The incident took place when a flight attendant checked the overhead compartments prior to take-off, took the Tallit bag from the overhead compartment, and asked, “Whose is this?”
When Roberto said it was his, she reportedly threw the bag onto his lap and said that it had to go underneath his seat, the couple reported.
“It’s a religious item, it cannot go under the seat,” Roberto pleaded. At that point, he removed his baseball hat to show his yarmulke on his head and explained how since he is an Orthodox Jew, he is forbidden from putting the holy shawl on the floor.
“It doesn’t matter,” the flight attendant allegedly responded.
Despite Roberto informing the flight attendant that the bag couldn’t be put on the floor, she was unphased.
“She was screaming at me and pointing her finger,” he said.
“I couldn’t believe this was happening to me in America,” Roberto said, adding, “We use these items every single day to pray.”
His wife Elana compared the flight attendant’s demand to asking a Christian to “throw a cross on the floor” where it can be stepped on.
“Nobody said a word. Nobody defended us. It was embarrassing,” she explained.
The pilot approached but did not talk to them, the Birmans said. At a certain point, a member of the ground crew was called in and urged them to follow him off the plane, they said.
Once they were escorted out, the crew member reportedly instucted his coworkers, “Close the gate!”
“What are we, criminals?” Elana remembered thinking adding that her husband “was devastated.”
“It was out of proportion” to what had occurred, Roberto said, adding that the flight attendant who started it all, “made me so nervous. I was shaking.”
Making matters worse, the two were left without Roberto’s diabetes medication, which were inside the checked luggage, received no assistance from the airline for providing food or a somewhere to stay overnight. The couple was forced to take a taxi to a friend’s home as a hurricane swept in.
They are now suing American Airlines for unspecified damages.
“My clients were ejected from the flight based on the prejudices and complete lack of sensitivity of American Airlines employees for reasons wholly unrelated to security,” their lawyer, Brad Gerstman said, adding, “The flight attendant and pilot’s conduct was as offensive as it was illogical.”
An AA spokesman said that the airline is reviewing the suit.