Friday the Rabbi Got Hijacked.
My 18-hour ordeal on a Delta flight hijacked to Cuba in 1980.
In September 1970, a TWA plane carrying Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner, rosh yeshivah of Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin, was hijacked to Jordan. It made headlines everywhere. Ten years later, on Friday, January 25, 1980, Rabbi Chaim Feuerman, z”l, was on Delta Flight 1116 that was hijacked to Cuba. (Coincidentally, Rabbi Feuerman also happened to have studied at Yeshiva Rabbi Chaim Berlin under Rabbi Hutner.) There was little publicity about this hijacking, save for an article published in the Staten Island Advance. Rabbi Feuerman kept a journal of the 18-hour ordeal. The story below, written by his daughter-in-law, the well-known novelist Ruchama Feuerman, is based on information culled from the journal as well as from the article in the Staten Island Advance, dated January 29, 1980.
It was January 24, a Thursday night, and I was on a Delta plane coming back from a Jewish education conference in Charleston, South Carolina. I was scheduled to land in JFK Airport at 2:50 am. (I was eager to make it back in time for the early minyan, because it was the yahrtzeit of my father, of blessed memory.)
At one point I sensed something was amiss on the plane. It should have begun to descend but it was still cruising. Ten minutes later, the plane was still cruising. The stewardess was going from passenger to passenger saying something that I couldn’t hear. She had a smile on her face and her arms folded. She came up to me, still with a smile, and I said to her, before she could open her mouth, “I always wanted to go to Cuba.” She stared at me, astonished. How did I know in advance? She had a phony smile pasted on her face. I thought, This kid is scared out of her wits. She’s going to Cuba.
Rabbi Chaim Feuerman, then dean of the Jewish Foundation School in Staten Island, New York, tells the story of his hijacking to his students a few days after the incident. Photo: Barry G. Schwartz
The time was approaching when I might have to make decisions and be alert and strong. So I did what I always do when big things are in the works: I took a nap. When I awoke, I thought, Better learn the laws of reciting the Shema prayer, which I did from my Derech Chaim siddur. I napped and learned intermittently. Various people came up to me and asked me to pray for them. (I must’ve stood out as the resident rabbi in my long beard, black jacket and hat.) It was amazing how many of the passengers were Jewish, but I hadn’t realized until they asked me to daven for them. I tried to reassure them.
I didn’t feel terribly scared myself. Why? Because I had had a very secure childhood – my mother and grandmother had always taken care of me. So I thought that’s the way things naturally go. You’re always taken care of.
I imagined calling my wife Chanaleh before she left for work. “You’re going to think I’m kidding, but . . .” She would have to explain why Rabbi Feuerman couldn’t attend the Lazarus bar mitzvah on Motzaei Shabbat. Some lame-sounding excuse about her husband getting hijacked to Cuba.
The hijacker, an African American who was holding the crew at bay with a .22-caliber pistol, had his wife and two young children with him.
The hijacker, an African American who was holding the crew at bay with a .22-caliber pistol, had his wife and two young children with him. (He’d hidden the gun in his baby’s diaper.) He told the captain: “If you don’t take me to Cuba, I’ll blow up the plane.” He said he’d planted a bomb on the plane.
The stewardesses tended to the passengers (there were 65 people onboard), trying to appear calm, but their body language projected fear. I guess they didn’t have a Bubby and mother like I had. Besides, they were just kids themselves.
Every now and then the captain would make an announcement in his reassuring Southern drawl. He asked us to use as few lights as possible and smoke as little as possible to conserve power and oxygen.
At 5:00 am we landed in Havana, in a far-flung corner of the airport. It was still dark, too early for Morning Prayers. Chanaleh wasn’t even up yet, and so she had no reason to be nervous. The tension was mounting on the plane, though. A diabetic woman without insulin fainted. A pregnant woman felt very sick. There were no physicians or nurses around. Meanwhile, the babies had run out of diapers. There was no milk left for baby bottles, no water left to rinse the bottles out. A drunken first-class passenger was cavorting around until a steward snapped at him, “Sit down and stay down if you don’t want to get shot!”
From outside, I saw bright headlights facing us, and I said to myself, “Wait a minute, we are going to Tehran.”
What made me guess that? I believed that the lights were a plane or a truck that was refueling the plane. What did we need fuel for? Where were we going? It had to be Tehran, a popular hijacking spot. In fact, that’s where the plane was supposed to go next.
When dawn trickled in, I performed my morning ablutions and davened. I was sorry I had missed Kaddish for my father’s yahrtzeit, but God exempts us from obligations we can’t perform for reasons beyond our control. (If ever a situation qualified as “beyond my control,” this was it.) But at least I had my yahrtzeit candle with me, though I wondered when I’d be allowed to light it. My more pressing concern though was Shabbat.
A man came over to me while I prayed, and said “Shalom” and kissed my tallit. I invited him to pray with me but he smiled and declined.
A physician was allowed to meet the diabetic passenger, who deplaned. That was somewhat reassuring. I figured the hijacker couldn’t be completely insane or ruthless. In fact, he struck me as affectionate, with a certain charm.
It was beautiful outside. I would’ve loved to take a walk.
At 8:20 am, the captain said in his easygoing way, “Things are workin’ slowly. Just relax and have another cup of coffee n’ we’ll let ya’all know as soon as we hear anything.” (There was no water or ice left.)
It was the captain’s voice that kept everyone calm, and prevented people from losing their heads.
Whenever the captain spoke to us, it had a strangely calming effect. I’ve always been a big proponent of soft-spokenness and of clear, slow, lucid speech; and indeed, it was his voice that kept everyone calm, and prevented people from losing their heads.
Should I tell the captain about my Shabbat problem? The thought floated through my mind but I immediately nixed it. He had enough to deal with.
I thought of the Israelites in the desert, wailing, “What will we drink?” They were held culpable because at that moment they still had water in their canteens. I wasn’t thirsty yet or hungry and Shabbat was still hours away, so there was no reason, I told myself, to get hot under the collar. At least not yet.
I peered outside and saw men with rifles guarding the plane and wondered if there was a Russian-Cuban tie-in.
Was it ten years earlier that Rav Hutner had been hijacked to Amman, Jordan? The details came back to me. It’s not that often that one’s rosh yeshivah gets hijacked. It happened in September 1970. The Palestinian Liberation Front took control of the TWA plane. Rav Hutner had his wife, daughter and son-in-law, my old chavruta, Yonasan David, with him. The ordeal lasted many days. “His” hijacking felt far more harrowing than whatever we were going through, I told myself, and tried to relax. I studied from my Derech Chaim siddur about the laws recited before studying a sacred text.
At 8:50 am, the captain came out of the cockpit. He was shaking his head, saying, “No good.” I think he was commenting on the food situation because shortly after, a stewardess found some rolls, butter and things to nibble on, orange juice, too.
At 8:55 am the captain informed us that if the hijacker got what he wanted, another plane, he would release us unharmed.
Unbeknownst to the passengers, the captain had told the hijacker: “This plane wasn’t built for such long-distance travel. It’s only built for domestic travel and if you want us to go to Tehran, we need to have a different plane.” Fortunately, the hijacker bought it. The captain then radioed Atlanta to send a different plane that would send us to Tehran. It was only a stalling tactic but it worked.
At 9:45 am the stewardess gave me a Delta Airlines customer information form: “We apologize for any inconvenience you may have experienced. Please complete this form and return to passenger agent.” Inconvenience? I completed the form and hoped to see that passenger agent at JFK soon.
Outside, another Cuban soldier with a walkie-talkie strolled by.
Snacks (all non-kosher) made their way onto the plane.
At 10:35 am, the captain said hopefully it wouldn’t be too much longer. I don’t remember when I last felt so utterly in the hands of the Holy One, blessed be He.
“I always wanted to spend Shabbat in Cuba, but just wasn’t counting on this one.”
A passenger asked me, “Do you think we will spend Shabbat here?”
I quipped, “I always wanted to spend Shabbat in Cuba, but just wasn’t counting on this one.”
More inaction. More delays and stalling.
At 12:30 pm, a stewardess came by holding one of the hijacker’s babies. She fleshed out more information about the hijacker. He was an unemployed accountant, a Muslim, alienated and frustrated. He wanted Iran – not Delta Airlines – to send him a plane. He wanted to speak with the news media to express his political views, one of which was: all African Americans in the United States should leave the country. He had the ashes of his sister with him, which he wanted to scatter over Mecca. His wife said that his mother in Atlanta was extremely ill, and if she found out what he was doing, she could die. But the hijacker said that he was in it and he wasn’t going to back down now.
He wanted his wife and children to go with him to Tehran. His wife appeared to be about twenty-two years old.
At this point I started to doubt if there really was a bomb. The hijacker had been non-violent and calm so far. I didn’t think he’d carry out his threat. However, he seemed unpredictable. I surmised that if he had had an opportunity to express his views to the media, he might have changed courses a bit, since the boil would’ve been lanced, so to speak.
But that didn’t happen.
I saw the captain come out of the cockpit and walk down the aisle. He was strolling around the plane, nodding and mumbling. In fact he was whispering to each passenger, “We’re goin’ to leave the plane. One at a time. Casual-like.” The plan was to escape through a dumbwaiter in the middle of the plane, normally used to transport food. In this way, we would exit, one at a time, women and children first. He did another clever thing. If the hijacker would notice there were no women on the plane, he would realize something was up. He told any woman who happened to be wearing a wig (no, there weren’t any frum women on the plane) to give it to the men. A few men donned wigs and turned their backs to the cockpit, so that to the hijacker looking out from the cockpit, they appeared to be women.
At 2:00 pm the plan went into effect. Everyone crept out via the dumbwaiter – women and children first – until finally there was one passenger and myself left. The hijacker didn’t notice anything. I couldn’t take my hat, coat or luggage, including my tallit and tefillin, because others thought it might endanger our escape. I was able to tuck my siddur into my pocket, though. With a grandiose motion of my hand, I invited the last guy to get into the dumbwaiter. And he, in response to my magnanimity, motioned for me to go. Finally the guy said, “Neither of us will make it off the plane.” He got into the dumbwaiter and I was the last one. Or maybe I jumped first and he was the last one. I’m not sure. The dumbwaiter didn’t go all the way to the ground. It stopped mid-air so we had to jump. There was a truck waiting for us and it hustled us all away.
Everyone was relieved, if not ebullient. The passengers called out to me, “You prayed well, rabbi!” But for me it wasn’t over. I was in Cuba and Shabbat was coming. Also, I desperately wanted Chanaleh to know I was safe.
The Cubans treated us courteously, even though the country had a hostile relationship with the United States. All the passengers were offered mango juice, water, and ham-and-cheese sandwiches. I politely declined the sandwich, as did the Muslim passengers who had been on the plane. Some passengers bought liquor and cigars.
Meanwhile, as everyone was eating in the airport, the hijacker discovered that we had escaped. He was furious. He jammed his gun into the belly of the captain and commanded him to take off. The captain cooperated, but the Cubans would not release the plane. The jig was up and the hijacker was overpowered. He and his family were taken into custody.
The ABC News anchor let me know he was Jewish and promised me he would call my wife.
An anchor from ABC News in Havana called in and wanted to speak to a certain passenger, and by accident, I was given the phone. The anchor let me know he was Jewish, too. He promised me he would call Chanaleh, and wrote down her phone number. Providence took care of my chief concern, which was reaching my wife.
And Shabbat was getting closer.
A friendly English-speaking representative of the Cuban government tried to put us all at ease. I asked her, “Soon it will be my Sabbath. Can you send me back to the States after the Sabbath ends?” She assured me it would be fine. “We’ll send you on a sea plane.” Other passengers cautioned me in a whisper, “If you spend one Sabbath here, you’ll end up spending many Sabbaths here.” Someone else warned me, “Don’t be fooled by the rep’s American accent. She’s Cuban and it’s no good.”
I turned to the captain, “It’s going to be Shabbat soon. Do you think we’ll be in Miami before sundown?”
“Raaabi,” he drawled, “I’m gonna fly that plane just as faaast as I can.”
And once again the captain valiantly delivered, and we arrived at the airport in Miami at candle lighting time. The stewardess said to me as we disembarked, “Rabbi, it was a pleasure being in a hijacking with you.” I felt the same way. The crew had acted superbly. The stewardesses, even though they had been terrified themselves, had comforted passengers, held babies and told stories to the children.
Immediately, I was whisked away to a hotel at the airport. I had a few cans of mango juice with me and bags of peanuts, and that’s what I ate for the whole of Shabbat. I was a prisoner in that room for twenty-five hours because if you left the room, the door automatically locked electronically. So I just stayed in the room with my seven cans of mango juice. I prayed with my siddur, studied the laws in it and drank mango juice.
After Shabbat, there was that Lazarus bar mitzvah I wanted to attend in Far Rockaway – the bar mitzvah boy was one of my students. In those days, airport security was pretty weak. So I just hopped on a plane, arrived at JFK Airport and got over to the Washington Hotel. Everyone was dancing in a circle around the bar mitzvah boy, and I joined in. It was a fitting end to the whole ordeal.
The hijacking didn’t make headlines the way Rav Hutner’s hijacking had. In fact, the whole event passed pretty quickly from my mind, although my sons were rather thrilled to hear the tale. I did resolve to say the Wayfarer’s Blessing with more concentration in the future. The simple meaning of the words of the prayer stood out starkly for me: May it be Your will . . . that You should lead us in peace and direct our steps in peace, and guide us in peace, and support us in peace, and cause us to reach our destination in life, joy, and peace. Save us from every enemy and ambush, from robbers and wild beasts on the trip, and from all kinds of punishments that rage and come to the world . . . . ”
The above article about Ruchama’s father-in-law, Rabbi Feuerman, is excerpted from his memoir as a Jewish educator which spanned six decades. He passed away just as they completed it and were deciding upon a title. He was 88 and surrounded by his graduate students.
This article was featured in Jewish Action Winter 2017.