From Haifa to Reykjavik

Parshas Emor teaches about the halachos prohibiting a kohen from becoming contaminated by contact to a corpse, a mitzvah that, as a kohen, I am privileged to observe.

From Haifa to Reykjavik

In the nearly 20 years since our aliyah, I have traveled to the US many times – generally combining business and pleasure by attending family simchahs and fundraising in the same week. Since I now have two married children in the States, these visits have become more frequent, but they are also for the most part uneventful.

That word cannot be used to describe my most recent trip to the East Coast, scheduled for two weeks after Sukkos. The “fun” began on erev Sukkos, when my son forwarded me a news item that, due to runway repair construction at Ben Gurion Airport, all flights for 16 days in November would be flying over the Holon Cemetery and thereby pose a problem for kohanim.

Since I am a kohen, I quickly contacted several rabbanim I know who are in the loop on these matters. Each one answered that we were indeed facing a serious problem. I then e-mailed my travel agent and put the matter to rest until after Sukkos, confident that something would straighten out way before the situation became germane to me.

When I fly El Al out of the New York area,  I usually travel via Newark Airport (EWR), since El Al does not carry cargo from EWR, thus avoiding any tumas meis issues as a kohen. My original booking had been a simple, round-trip flight from Tel Aviv to Newark.  The fare was very reasonable, there were no issues for kohanim, and the connection times were excellent. I planned to leave Wednesday night, attend a family chasuna in Lakewood on Thursday, and spend two Shabbosos with my children and grandchildren in the New York area. My wife was also planning to attend the wedding and be in the US at the same time, so we could also plan on spending some much-needed vacation time together.

As the old expression goes, man plans and G-d laughs.

After Sukkos, I contacted the travel agent again. Runway repair work was still scheduled; the airport had not made any concessions for kohanim; some airlines were so nice as to offer to refund any tickets for flights during that time. But rescheduling the trip would mean missing the wedding and changing all of our vacation plans. What other options did I have? And since my wife is not a kohen, her ticket was not refundable.

I soon discovered that it was possible to fly out of Israel from Haifa, which has an international airport with daily flights to Cyprus on an airline called Tus. But when my travel agent attempted to find me a connection through Haifa, he could find only a convoluted travel path that would involve four flights, an overnight stopover in Cyprus’s Larnaca Airport, and two one-hour plane changes in Athens and Frankfurt. This seemed neither logical, nor wise. What if I missed one of the flights and ended up missing all the connections as well?

My agent told me that some kohanim were planning to continue their flights as planned and place themselves in plastic bags during the trip over Holon Cemetery. This approach is based on the concept called tzamid pasil which means that a sealed vessel can prevent tumah from entering it. While this procedure has been followed, the rabbanim I consulted agreed with me that placing oneself a large plastic bag and closing the top does not qualify as a tzamid pasil. So, it was Haifa or nothing.

But how? Looking online, my resourceful son found me several connections on, shall we generously call them, discount airlines, without an overnight in Cyprus. My new travel plans would involve a one-hour flight from Haifa to Cyprus, a three-hour stopover for a connecting flight to London’s Stanstead airport, an overnight layover in London, and finally a connection to the US. The new travel plans meant that I would be leaving for the US three days earlier than I had originally planned and would land on Tuesday night for a Thursday night wedding in Lakewood.. Since I had no reason to be in Lakewood three days before the wedding, I found a connection via Reyjkavik to Baltimore, where I was planning to fundraise. I planned on renting a car there and then driving to Lakewood for the wedding.

I booked the flight, hoping for the best. Of course, all the tickets were nonrefundable.

I quickly found overnight accommodations in London with a former talmid of mine, now doing kiruv work in London, and figured I was all set up. I would leave home in Yerushalayim Sunday night, two days earlier than planned, spend one night at my son’s house in Haifa so that I could catch my 9 am Monday flight on Tus Airlines from Haifa to Larnaca, Cyprus. Monday night I would sleep over in London, and Tuesday night I would arrive in Baltimore, where I would have time to do some fundraising before the wedding. Who gets to fly from Eretz Yisrael to the US or back without missing a proper night’s sleep in a proper bed? I would.

After all these non-refundable tickets were ordered and paid for, we received an e-mail from Tus that my Monday morning flight had been cancelled. The airline offered to book me on alternative flights later that day or refund my money. But leaving on the next available flight wouldn’t do me any good – I would miss my connection to London! Instead, I said that I had to leave the day before, and only if the airline provided me with a hotel room in Cyprus and transportation to the hotel. They agreed.

Thus, instead of leaving Sunday night to Haifa to spend the night in my son’s house, I davened early Sunday morning so that I could get to Haifa in time for a 12:30 pm Sunday flight from Haifa International Airport to Larnaca, Cyprus. I would then have a 24-hour stopover in Larnaca before proceeding to London.

Trying to make the best of it, I decided to view my stopover in Cyprus as an adventure. My flight from Haifa, on a prop jet whose air conditioning was on the blink, took only an hour. Upon landing, I located the ticket agent desk and asked her about my hotel reservation. She said she would follow up. Less than five minutes later, she told me that arrangements had been made, and that a courtesy cab would be coming to the cab stand and the driver would hold a handwritten card with my name on it.

The drive to the hotel took about ten minutes. The driver, who was my age but looked twenty years older, was a Greek resident of Cyprus from birth. He told me that Larnaca is not the largest town in Cyprus. The capital, Nicosia, located in the middle of the island, is. However, the cabbie explained that during the civil war in 1974 the Nicosia airport had been destroyed, and since that time the Larnaca airport, which is only about a half hour drive from Nicosia, has been used as the primary one for the Greek part of the island.

Since I would be in Cyprus for a whole day, I had thought about renting a car in Cyprus and touring the country, which is only one hundred miles from east to west. I discovered that one can cross the border between the two countries that comprise Cyprus, the Republic of Cyprus and the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. However, I soon realized that I would be landing only two hours before sunset, and in the morning I wouldn’t have much time to go anywhere before I it would be time to head to the airport to catch my next flight. In addition, although the spoken language in Cyprus is exclusively Greek, since it was once a British colony, they drive on the left side of the road, which, for me, would have proven to be a challenge. I decided to do without a car.

My hotel room turned out to be a beautiful, small suite, two-and-a-half rooms, including a nice-sized sitting room with two couches, a coffee table and another small table; a small kitchenette outfitted with a stove and refrigerator, cutlery, carving knives, can openers, pots and even china, as well as a bedroom. The room also had a beautiful porch. The apartment was in the heart of Larnaca.

Once I had settled in, I went for a brief walk to feel out the town and try to find the Chabad House, which, according to Google Maps, was not far away. Initially, I had difficulty finding it. The road signs were all Greek to me, but I was able to hold my Google map printout in the direction of the sign and try to compare the symbols of the Greek alphabet to try to figure out which street I had just located. Asking passersby was not successful, since they all spoke only Greek. I was about to give up, when I tried one more turn, and finally hit upon the tiny side street on which the Chabad House was located. The building was unmarked and protected like a fortress, although I saw no indication of this being necessary.

I arrived at the building called “The Jewish Community of Cyprus,” which is also the Chabad House, about ten minutes later than Mincha had been scheduled. In a stroke of tremendous hashgacha pratis, I found nine people there despairing of having a minyan. I was the tentziger, the tenth man for the minyan that evening, the only minyan in the entire country!

Only three of the attendees looked like your usual shul-goers (the others removed their yarmulkes when they left the building). The brief shiur between mincha and maariv was conducted in Hebrew. It seemed that the Chabad sheluchim present were Israeli, and that some of the attendees were originally Israeli as well. After davening, I asked one of the attendees for a ride to my hotel, since I was afraid of getting lost in the dark in an unfamiliar city. I asked him about his background during the brief drive, and he told me that he was originally from Romania and had moved to Cyprus for a job.

Returning to the hotel, I ate dinner, which I’d brought from home, worked on my computer and went to sleep early. The electric outlets were very strange-looking, but the hotel desk gave me an adapter, and I was able to plug in my computer and recharge my phone.

Shacharis at the Chabad House was called for 8:00, and I was awake well in advance of this time. I walked back to the shul in the morning, observing the local population as I did so. Although Larnaca is a tourist town, I saw very few tourists – perhaps because of my location, or perhaps because of the time of year (November). The town itself gave me an impression of being a bit grimy, and not glitzy.  Few people in the street spoke any English, although the hotel clerk spoke with a perfect British accent.

There were nine people at the minyan, but one of sheluchim called someone to make a minyan, so we had kerias haTorah, borchu, and kadeishim – not a common occurrence during travel! While most of the attendees did not seem particularly frum, there was one religious Israeli from Bnei Brak, a middle-aged baal teshuvah who, together with his wife, had accompanied his mother to her vacation home. He introduced himself to me and offered me a ride to the airport, a suggestion that I took him up on.

My flight to London, on Cobalt Airlines, was unremarkable. In London, I was happy to reconnect with the talmid who hosted me, and we had the opportunity to discuss a number of matters pertaining to his kiruv work.

My continuing flight out of London was out of Gatwick. In addition to Heathrow, London is serviced by a tiny airport called “City Airport” and three airports outside the city – Gatwick, Stanstead, and Luton – all quite a distance outside London. When I made my reservation out of London, I booked a flight out of Gatwick for 10:55 am, figuring this would allow me plenty of time to make a trip out of the city in the opposite direction of morning traffic. Little did I realize what was in store…

The car service was booked for 7:05 am, and the driver was on time. Still stuck in London traffic at 9:05, I asked the driver how far we were from the airport, and he told me about another hour! After much driving heroics, the driver left me off at what he told me was the correct terminal at 10:05. When I entered the airport and looked for my airline, I was informed by security that I was at the wrong terminal! (With non-refundable tickets!) Airport security was very helpful and showed me how to catch the internal rail service to the correct terminal.

I’m not sure how, but I indeed was able to get onto the plane! The fly-by-night airline I traveled on charged me for two bags – one for my checked luggage, and the other for my carry-on, which they ruled was oversized.

In the announcements made by the airline in the terminal and on the flight, passengers were always referred to as the airline’s “guests.” Since they charged for everything, including bottled water, I wonder how they treat their paying customers! They announced that they would accept all standard currencies, including dollars, euros, and pounds, at the airline’s special exchange rate, and that all items available for sale are priced in the online magazine. Indeed, everything is priced there – in the currency of the airline’s main hub, Icelandic Krona. So you had no idea what an item costs until you ordered it, asking them what it costs in the currency that you had handy. But, baruch Hashem, both of my flights – London to Reykjavik and Reykjavik to Baltimore — were uneventful, and I arrived in Baltimore only two and a half days after I’d left Yerushalayim.

Almost every day we have experiences in life where Hashem’s hashgacha pratis is there waiting for us to see it. Sometimes we do see it, and sometimes we miss it. This trip, which was supposed to be so simple, ended up being very complicated, yet I was privileged to see several obvious instances of hashgacha pratis along the way, and for that I am very grateful. And all of this because I am zocheh to being a kohen!