How Israelis fleeing the coronavirus in New York met contagion in the skies
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ToI investigates'Something outrageous happened on that flight'

How Israelis fleeing the coronavirus in New York met contagion in the skies

When a Brooklyn yeshiva closed, 100+ Israeli students flew home on El Al. Dozens have now tested positive, and other passengers, fearful, want to know why they were put at risk

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

[Illustrative] An El Al Israel Airlines Boeing 747 at the John F. Kennedy International Airport (Photo: iStock/Maciej_Bledowski)
[Illustrative] An El Al Israel Airlines Boeing 747 at the John F. Kennedy International Airport (Photo: iStock/Maciej_Bledowski)

Around midday on Wednesday March 18, Adi Israel, a 22-year-old acting student, was waiting to get on an El Al flight to Israel when boarding was inexplicably delayed.

“Dear passenger, Flight LY002 from New York to Tel Aviv will take off at 13:30 instead of at 12:30 as originally scheduled,” read a text message received by Israel’s mother in Dimona, who was waiting anxiously for her daughter to return from her acting studies at New York City’s Lee Strasberg Institute.

“The coronavirus was spreading in New York,” Israel said, explaining why she had decided to fly back that day. “Our studies had gone online. My mother wanted me to come home.”

She also felt Israel would be a better place to be during the coronavirus pandemic, because unlike the United States, it has national health insurance.

“I thought it would be better to be in the Israeli health system. I have better insurance in Israel than in the United States.”

But as she waited to board, the young acting student could see El Al staff urgently consulting with security personnel.

“Please sit down, please sit down,” staff told passengers. “We’re not boarding yet.”

As she waited, she received a video clip from her mother, who had just filmed a news report directly from the television screen in their living room.

Next to a chilling headline “The Corona Plane,” Channel 12 news reporter Amalia Douek told viewers that boarding on an El Al flight at JFK airport had been stopped due to fears that some of the passengers had been in contact with coronavirus carriers.

“There has been massive infection in [ultra-Orthodox] Jewish communities in New York,“ reported Douek. “There were synagogues in New York that went into lockdown. The purpose is to prevent these people from coming to Israel, to the Haredi communities here. We have previously reported that in meetings in the Prime Minister’s Office, the Haredi and Arab communities are mentioned as communities that are not adhering to [social distancing] guidelines. And so the idea here is to take preventative measures and to prevent these people from coming to Israel.”

Adi Israel is one of six passengers interviewed by The Times of Israel who flew from New York to Israel on March 18 and 19 and who all tell a similar story. Amid media reports of widespread infection in Haredi neighborhoods of Brooklyn, well over 100 students from the yeshiva at the Chabad movement’s 770 Eastern Parkway headquarters in Crown Heights — all of them Israeli citizens — boarded several El Al planes on those two days and were whisked away to hotel quarantine as soon as they landed. Many, if not most of these students tested positive for COVID-19 once they arrived.

Among these students’ fellow passengers were elderly and sick Israelis who had no idea they were sharing an aircraft with dozens of likely contagious patients. (The incubation period of coronavirus is believed to be five days or longer, and people start shedding the virus before showing symptoms, according to health experts.)

Orthodox Jewish men use “social distancing” as they pray outside the Chabad Lubavitch World Headquarters, March 20, 2020, in the Brooklyn borough of New York, before leaders of six major organizations released a joint statement urging worshipers to “avoid, to the maximum extent feasible, any outside interactions” to help stop the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

Did El Al and Israel’s Health Ministry suspect these students were infected and let them on the plane anyway? What about the students themselves, who had signed a declaration that they were not sick and had had no contact with anyone who had the disease? Did some of them lie on their declarations? And what responsibility is borne by the yeshiva itself, which reportedly closed its doors and encouraged students to fly back to Israel, as opposed to instructing them to quarantine themselves in New York?

A Chabad spokesman told The Times of Israel that the students had no idea they were infected when they flew. But other passengers on the planes, who are in the midst of a 14-day home quarantine (mandatory for anyone entering the country), are skeptical and demanding answers.

‘I was afraid’

Adi Israel, the acting student, did not fully understand why her Wednesday afternoon plane, LY002, was not boarding on time.

Adi Israel, an acting student, returned to Israel from New York aboard an El Al flight on March 18, 2020 (Courtesy)

“We waited and waited. I was afraid.”

Behind the scenes, El Al was urgently consulting with Israel’s Health Ministry and trying to decide what to do about dozens of yeshiva students from the Central Yeshiva Tomchei Temimim Lubavitch in Crown Heights, spokespeople for El Al and the ministry confirmed to The Times of Israel.

Crown Heights, along with other Jewish and non-Jewish communities in Brooklyn, had been hit by coronavirus suddenly and ferociously. On March 9, a single case had been reported in a nursing home in southern Brooklyn. On March 13, Haredi schools in Crown Heights closed following reports of three confirmed cases within the close-knit Chabad community of some 15,000.

On March 15, rabbinic and medical leaders wrote in a letter to the community that “at this time, COVID-19 has reached epidemic proportions in our community.” On March 17, a report on the Haredi news website Hamodia.com said that “a Crown Heights Hatzalah member told Hamodia that there are so many cases there that just about the entire community is considered to have been exposed.”

Another article that same day on the Chabad website Anash.org reported that the student dormitory and cafeteria of the Central Yeshiva Tomchei Temimim Lubavitch [also known as the 770 Yeshiva] in Crown Heights was being closed due to the coronavirus outbreak, that no alternative accommodations would be available, and that administrators were encouraging students from abroad to return home. The yeshiva has about 250 students.

Followers of the Chabad movement dance on March 14, 2020, days before 770 Eastern Parkway’s closure because of the coronavirus. (Youtube screenshot)

“It is reported that over 50 bochurim [yeshiva students] have mild symptoms,” the article noted.

According to El Al spokesman Ashi Am Shalom, on the afternoon of Wednesday March 18, dozens of students from the Tomchei Temimim yeshiva had already boarded flight LY002 when they were asked to get off again. This was because Israel’s Health Ministry had received a tip that many of them were sick, he said.

“There were rumors,” said Am Shalom, “so the Health Ministry requested that we have people sign a form saying that they had not met a coronavirus patient in the last 14 days and that therefore they didn’t need to be in quarantine. We took people off the plane, we prepared the form, and we had people sign. These were the precise instructions of the Health Ministry. If they had said, Don’t put such-and-such person on the plane, or they had said not to let the plane fly, we would have complied.”

Meanwhile, most of the other El Al passengers were in the dark.

“We waited and waited,” said Adi Israel. “Finally, someone got on the loudspeaker and said that anyone who wants to board the plane has to sign a release form. You had to declare that you hadn’t come into contact with anyone who had the coronavirus in the last two weeks and you had to declare that you hadn’t experienced any symptoms, like fever, cough or shortness of breath.”

Staff began handing out forms, shouting at passengers to sit down, she said. At one point they ran out of forms and rushed away to print more.

Israel signed the form in good faith, but it occurred to her that the temptation for some passengers to lie would be strong. “We were already boarding. People just wanted to get on the plane and get home,” she said.

On the flight, Israel wore gloves. She wiped down her seat, armrests and tray table. To the extent that she could, she kept a distance from other passengers.

“I knew that most of the time the disease affects older people, but my parents are older and I was going home and I didn’t want to endanger them.”

The rest of the flight was almost normal. The flight attendants wore masks and gloves but served hot meals as usual. Israel noticed people coughing on the flight, but not in a way that seemed out of the ordinary.

But after the plane landed, something strange happened.

“We landed at about 6:15 a.m. Israel time [on March 19]. One of the flight attendants got onto the loudspeaker and said that students from the 770 Yeshiva in Crown Heights should get off the plane first.”

About half the people on the plane got up and disembarked, she said. “Once they had gotten off, the plane seemed kind of empty.”

Videos circulating online as well as news reports in the Haredi and mainstream Israeli media describe what happened next.

A bus with seats covered in plastic and whose driver sat behind a protective shield drove onto the tarmac. The young men boarded the bus without appearing to go through passport control. A man in a mask who appeared to be in a position of authority spoke to them.

“The [Health Ministry] has consulted with Chabad rabbis,” the man said. “According to the information they have about what is happening in [Brooklyn’s] Crown Heights, they view each and every one of you as effectively having the coronavirus until proven otherwise. From their point of view, every person on this bus has the coronavirus. For this reason, and in coordination with the rabbis and yeshiva heads, it has been decided to take all of you straight to quarantine at the Dan Hotel in Jerusalem.”

One of the young men in the video protested, “if we all have coronavirus why aren’t you taking the rest of the people on the plane, why just us?”

“It’s not my decision,” said the man. “I’m not a doctor. Ask the Health Ministry.”

Several days later, on March 23, Channel 12 reported that 65 of the 114 Crown Heights yeshiva students then quarantined at the Dan Hotel in Jerusalem had been found to be infected with coronavirus. The Health Ministry has confirmed to The Times of Israel that the number of yeshiva students infected is probably higher than the 65 cases initially reported.

Adi Israel has spent the last week quarantined at her family’s house in Dimona. She has started to develop a fever and cough, she said, and is awaiting the results of a test.

“I feel stressed,” she said, “and disappointed. They knew there were sick people in Crown Heights. If there was even a small worry, they should have found a solution — maybe a dedicated plane for all the people from Crown Heights. I feel like they were hiding something from us. When the news first came out that there were sick yeshiva students on that plane, El Al said they would contact the other passengers. But I haven’t heard from them.”

The Dan Hotel in Jerusalem that was converted to receive coronavirus patients, March 17, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Shlomi Am Shalom of El Al said the airline had had no choice but to let the yeshiva students board the plane. “We followed the instructions of the Health Ministry,” he said.

To discriminate among passengers or prevent someone from flying just because they belong to a particular religious sect or attend a particular yeshiva would be against the law, he said.

“I can’t decide that someone wearing a suit and hat can’t get on the plane. It would be anti-Semitic to do that. And I don’t know even who is from a particular yeshiva. It is not written on their ticket.”

‘Is there a doctor on board?’

According to passengers that the Times of Israel spoke to, more students from the same yeshiva boarded additional flights as well, without the other passengers being informed of the risks or the behind-the-scenes deliberations of El Al and the Health Ministry.

Motti Ben Yitzhack and his wife Suzy, both in their 60s from Ashkelon, were among the passengers on flight LY0026  from Newark to Tel Aviv, which took off at 8:30 p.m. on March 18, a few hours after the flight from JFK.

The Ben Yitzhacks had been visiting their children and grandchildren in Monsey, New York, when their son-in-law, an emergency room doctor in Westchester, advised them to cut their visit short due to spreading coronavirus in the United States.

Motti Ben-Yitzhack (Facebook)

“I have COPD, a lung disease. My wife and I were very fearful of contagion,” he said.

Before getting on the plane, all passengers were asked to fill out the same kind of declaration that they had no symptoms of coronavirus and no contact with someone known to be a carrier, Ben Yitzhack told The Times of Israel.

Several hours into the flight, an announcement came over the loudspeaker: “Is there a doctor on board?”

The flight attendants brought a middle-aged Haredi man into the Economy Plus cabin where the Ben Yitzhacks sat, and put an oxygen mask over his face.

Rami Schwartz, 33, of Jerusalem, was also on the Newark-Tel Aviv flight with his wife, children and his wife’s 93-year-old grandmother. The family were on their way home from a wedding in Washington, DC, that had been canceled at the last minute.

Rami and Doranit Schwartz (Facebook)

“The flight attendants suddenly asked if there was a doctor on board. We asked what happened, and they said a man was having a diabetic attack,” he said. Schwartz thinks this was a white lie, told so as not to panic passengers.

A medical professional who had gotten up to help the sick man told Schwartz that in reality the man had shortness of breath and a fever. “We’re going to have to go into really, really thorough quarantine after this,” he told Schwartz.

Schwartz said he then overheard one of the flight attendants speaking on the phone.

“We must have been over Turkey at that point. She was talking to someone and said that under no circumstances are we doing an emergency landing because then we’ll be quarantined wherever we land.”

When the plane landed in Tel Aviv, the sick man was taken off first while the other passengers were told to remain in their seats.

“Then there was an announcement that everyone should stay in their seats but that anyone from the 770 Yeshiva in Crown Heights was invited to leave the plane,” said Ben Yitzhack. “I remember they used the word ‘invited.’”

Ben Yitzhack said about 20 to 30 people got up and disembarked. When Ben Yitzhack learned later that people on his flight had tested positive for the virus, he was upset. “If we had known there was a group of people on board who were at high risk of having coronavirus we would not have gotten on the flight,” he said.

“Right now we’re just waiting to see if we have been infected. Every tickle in the throat, every cough, we wonder is this it? Is this what we might have caught on the plane?”

Schwartz wonders why El Al and the Health Ministry allowed the flight to go ahead as planned.

“We knew there had been an outbreak in places like Crown Heights but we trusted the authorities not to put us in danger. Was this a deliberate decision, to put us at risk for the greater good, or was this an oversight?”

Officials in ‘astronaut suits’

On Thursday, March 19, a day after the two eventful flights of March 18, a similar scene repeated itself.

One of the passengers on board  flight LY8 from JFK to Tel Aviv was Sheli Bar-Niv, 30, a pastry chef at a Manhattan restaurant whose entire staff had been laid off due to the coronavirus. Bar-Niv had decided that financially and otherwise, it was a good time to return to Israel.

Sheli Bar-Niv (Photo:Nitzan Keinan)

Before passengers were given their boarding passes, she said, they too were required to sign the virus declaration.

While waiting in line, Bar-Niv spoke to some of the Haredi passengers. “I heard a few guys saying they were going straight to the Dan Hotel for quarantine,” she recounted.

“And other people on line said, ‘No, you’re supposed to go home to quarantine. Hotel quarantine is for people who test positive.’ But they seemed to already know they were going to the hotel.”

When the plane landed, said Michal, a social work student at Columbia University who was on board, “Some people from the Health Ministry boarded the plane. They were wearing those astronaut suits. One of them took over the loudspeaker and said ‘only students from the 770 Yeshiva in Brooklyn can get off.’”

Between 10 and 20 passengers did so.

Shachar Halevi, 22, a music student at the New School, was also on the flight. “Every 30 seconds,” he recalled, “someone on the plane coughed in a way that alarmed me,” he recalled.

Shachar Halevi (Facebook)

A few days later, Halevi’s parents got a call informing them that there had been positive cases of coronavirus on his flight and that the whole family should go into quarantine.

Halevi’s father, Yossi Klein Halevi, is furious about the situation.

“Something outrageous happened on that flight and I want to know why.
I want to know why the Health Ministry allowed this to happen, when they were obviously worried enough about this group of yeshiva students to whisk them away as soon as they landed. I want to know why Chabad in Israel encouraged its students to simply get on the plane, when everyone knew by then that Crown Heights had been severely impacted. And I want to know how El Al allowed the group to board, despite its initial hesitations.”

Yossi Klein Halevi (Ilir Bajaktari / The Tower)

“This isn’t only a personal matter, though of course it is very personal for me,” added Halevi, a writer who often contributes to The Times of Israel. “This is also an urgent question about how our institutions function in a time of life and death emergency. It is about responsibility and accountability.”

Bringing the boys home

Motti Seligson, a spokesman for the Chabad-Lubavitch movement in Crown Heights, told The Times of Israel that as far as he knew, none of the yeshiva students who flew home to Israel on March 18 and 19 knew they were ill.

“Your questions are premised on ‘reports’ that those who flew were symptomatic before departing, but that’s not at all what the people with first-hand knowledge are saying, the bochurim [yeshiva students] themselves,” he said.

Reports in Chabad-related news outlets do in fact suggest that many of the yeshiva students were believed to be sick but that the Chabad leadership sought to have some of them fly home nevertheless.

An article published on March 17 on the Israeli Chabad site Col.org.il said that Israeli Chabad leaders, at the behest of the Health Ministry, were compiling a list of yeshiva students from Crown Heights who were planning to return to Israel.

Meir Ashkenazi, the deputy director of Magen David Adom-Hatzalah for the southern region and a Chabad activist, is quoted in the article saying many of the young men were believed to be sick.

“Since the afternoon we have received queries from parents who want their sons to come home,” said Ashkenazi, “We have contacted Magen David Adom who told the Health Ministry that there are many students planning to return to Israel in the coming days and in light of the situation in Crown Heights there is a fear that some of them have been infected and will arrive in Israel already sick with coronavirus.”

Meir Ashkenazi, deputy director of Magen David Adom-Hatzalah for the southern region (Facebook)

Several days later, Haim Steiner, a Chabad politico and member of the Likud Central Committee, gave an interview to the website Col.org.il, in which he claimed that the Health Ministry initially did not want to let the students fly back to Israel, but was ultimately persuaded to do so.

“I spoke to one of the people involved in the discussions between the Health Ministry and Chabad rabbis,” he said. “At first the Health Ministry wanted to prohibit airlines from bringing these yeshiva students to Israel, but that would have left them on the street without a bed or food, since the yeshiva had closed the dormitory and cafeteria.”

Steiner continued, “The Health Ministry, in consultation with the rabbis, decided to send the men directly to the Dan Hotel as soon as they landed in Israel. Now that we know how widespread the virus was among the young men, we realize it was the right thing to do because we saved Chabad communities throughout Israel.”

‘We had no concrete information’

Dr. Ashi Shalmon, the head of international relations in the Health Ministry, told The Times of Israel that the Health Ministry decided to allow the Crown Heights yeshiva students to fly because it had no concrete information that the yeshiva students were sick, just “rumors and gossip.”

“On the day of the [March 18] flight, we had no concrete information about anyone being sick. There were only rumors. We tried to talk to Chabad and health care workers in New York, but we did not have verified information about sick people that we shouldn’t put on the plane. It was at the level of gossip. That’s why we decided to do this legal thing, to have passengers sign the declarations, because we are not allowed to stop Israeli citizens from entering Israel based on rumors.”

Dr. Asher (Ashi) Shalmon, head of international relations for Israel’s Ministry of Health (Photo: WhatsApp)

Shalmon said that the Health Ministry did have concrete information about one sick person booked on the March 18 flight and was able to prevent him from boarding the plane.

According to Shalmon, there were actually six or seven planes where the Health Ministry whisked away a group of yeshiva students to hotel quarantine.

“Why did we do this? First, because most people don’t have proper conditions for a quarantine at home and second, because there’s a compliance issue: These are young people whom you can’t really trust to quarantine themselves properly.”

Although Magen David Adom-Hatzalah official Meir Ashkenazi had said publicly on March 17 that many of the yeshiva students preparing to fly to Israel may be sick, Shalmon rejected the suggestion that this had been actionable information.

“The first time anyone in the Health Ministry spoke to Meir Ashkenazi was three hours before the [March 18] flight took off. We asked him for verified information, for a single positive case, and he couldn’t produce one.”

One reason there was no verified information, Shalmon acknowledged, is that the entire United States suffers from a shortage of coronavirus tests.

“There are 150,000 people in Crown Heights. Aside from anecdotes we don’t know how much illness there is there till today, because there are very few tests in the United States. It was only after we tested the yeshiva students here in Israel that we realized the magnitude of the problem.”

‘Fly at your own risk’

Shalmon said that the return of students from Crown Heights was not a coordinated operation, as presented in some Haredi media, but that students bought their own tickets and continue to arrive in Israel on various flights, not just El Al.

“We asked Chabad to put out a letter telling them not to come. [And] on every flight after the first one, we tried to locate boys from Crown Heights and take them to hotel quarantine. The situation in [Brooklyn’s] Williamsburg and Borough Park is not much better, by the way.”

Asked whether the Health Ministry had considered flying the students on a dedicated plane, he said, “It doesn’t work that way. We don’t do planes for a single yeshiva.”

Passengers disembarking from an unidentified El Al flight, March 20, 2020. (Facebook)

Shalmon suggested that the only way to prevent contagion on planes might be to stop all flights from New York — which is gradually happening as world airlines largely shut down. “It’s a big legal question. But I think it would be the right thing to do, I say this as a private citizen, not as a representative of the state.”

He added, “I don’t think there is a single plane coming from New York that doesn’t have sick people on it. Anyone who flies except out of absolute need is putting themselves in danger. At this point every flight is dangerous.”

Shalmon was speaking on March 26. That same day, El Al announced it had temporarily suspended all of its regular passenger flights, to all destinations, in part due to concerns for the health of its passengers and crews.

JTA contributed to this report.

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