- The Washington Times - Friday, January 22, 2010

PHILADELPHIA (AP) | A teenage airplane passenger using a Jewish prayer object caused a misunderstanding that led the captain to divert a Kentucky-bound flight to Philadelphia and prompted a visit from a bomb squad.

A 17-year-old boy on US Airways Express Flight 3079 from New York to Louisville was using tefillin, a set of small boxes containing biblical passages that are attached to leather straps, said Philadelphia police Lt. Frank Vanore.

When used in prayer, one box is strapped to the arm while the other box is placed on the head.

“It’s something that the average person is not going to see very often, if ever,” FBI spokesman J.J. Klaver said.

The teen explained the ritual after being questioned by crew members of the flight, which had left LaGuardia Airport about 7:30 a.m. and was operated by Chautauqua Airlines, authorities said.

Officials with the airline, however, said crew members “did not receive a clear response” when they talked with the teen, according to a statement issued by Republic Airways, which owns Chautauqua.

“Therefore, in the interest of everyone’s safety, the crew decided to land in Philadelphia, where a more complete investigation and follow-up with authorities would be possible,” the statement said.

The plane landed without incident and was met by police, bomb-sniffing dogs and officials from the FBI and Transportation Security Administration.

Authorities said the plane was searched and passengers were questioned. The teen, who is from White Plains, N.Y., and was traveling with his 16-year-old sister, was cooperative, Lt. Vanore said.

“They were more alarmed than we were,” Lt. Vanore said.

Mr. Klaver said the teen and his sister were never in custody and were cleared to continue their travels.

The teen’s grandmother, who was waiting for him at Louisville International Airport, said the early flight left no time to pray before leaving New York.

“They had a morning flight. My grandson didn’t have a chance to pray,” Frances Winchell told WLKY-TV.

The teen, who belongs to the congregation Young Israel of White Plains, is “a brilliant student” from “the sweetest family,” said Shmuel Greenberg, the synagogue’s rabbi.

The morning prayer ritual is supposed to take place within a few hours of sunrise, so it’s understandable that the teen was doing it on the plane, Mr. Greenberg said.

Binding the boxes of holy scrolls to the arm and head serves as “a reminder for the person that their actions during the day, and what they think about during the day, should be on a level of holiness and should inspire them to do productive, good things,” he said.

The rabbi said he could see how someone unfamiliar with the tefillin could be alarmed.

“Security today is a serious issue. You can’t become educated up in the air,” Mr. Greenberg said. “I can definitely see a pilot or a crew that never saw it before in today’s environment be very, very concerned.”

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