Touched by a Landing

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01 Jun 2011

May 26, 2011 – Ynet (Hebrew News from the Israeli Newspaper Yideot Achronot)

With all due respect to my dear friend, Rabbi Chili Spero, and to my friends at Mesorah /Artscroll, my children asked that I recount my experience on El Al Flight 27 from Tel Aviv to Newark and call it, “Touched by a Landing.” They envisioned a book, but I think a short essay will do.

The headline reads, “Fracture in 777: Boeing engineers had never seen such a thing.” The article continues, “Aviation accident investigators from Boeing in Seattle and from Israel’s Ministry of Transport dismantled the Boeing aircraft landing gear of the plane that carried out an emergency landing earlier this week and were surprised to find a big break in it. ‘It was a great miracle,’ said a senior source in the aviation industry.Boeing engineers were stunned. They had never seen anything like this . . . ‘The plane was hanging by a thread, and it is clear to everyone that this is a big miracle,’ explained a senior aviation official. ‘Technically, the landing gear was destroyed.’ . . . Boeing engineers were no less amazed.”

May 23, 2011 – Somewhere over Europe on the replacement flight for LY 27.

imageI write these words as Flight 27, take two, is passing over Europe. While I am sure people will be interested in learning what happened from the passenger’s perspective, I am writing to reflect on what occurred, and hopefully give meaning to my experience as well as cathartic release. As I pen these words, I am still teary eyed and heaving from the emotional aftermath. However, these expressions of feeling are a reaction to what occurred after the landing and are exactly the opposite of what took place on the airplane during the episode itself.

To put the episode in perspective, I will begin at Eruv Shabbos and recount several unusual occurrences that in retrospect I believe might be tied to my outcome. We are commanded, “U’bacharta b’chaim”, to choose life. From Friday on, G-d presented several mitzvah opportunities to me to “choose life’.

I traveled to Israel last Sunday to join an Associated (Baltimore’s Federation) mission, sponsored by the Jewish Federations of North America, which centered on the book Start Up Nation. The trip was very enlightening and successful and ended Thursday night. I returned to Yerushalayim to spend Shabbos with my daughter Rena, my son-in-law Moshe and my grandson Binyamin Yehuda. Eruv Shabbos I got a haircut l’chovodShabbos before Lag B’omer. I then went to the Mir Yeshiva where I joined my son-in-law Moshe at the eruv Shabbos shmooz of his rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Elefant. Normally, I would then go to daven mincha at the local Shtiblach. However, this day was different because we had to deal with a new inyan in our lives, trumos and maasros. We learned that morning of problems with the hechsherof our local fruit and vegetable store. As we had bought produce there that morning, Moshe and I walked to Rav Efrati’s home in nearby Arzai to ask him what to do in this case. Rav Efrati is the local expert in this area.

To our great fortune, Rav Efrati was at home. He remembered me from our joint work together in the past and greeted me warmly. Rav Efrati formulated a solution to our specific problem. Even though the Keren Trumosu’Maasros was closed, he made the phone calls necessary to make me a member, a necessary condition to take trumos and maasros. He then instructed me on how to do the mitzvah of taking trumos and maasros on the produce we bought earlier. Later that day, Moshe and I took the produce outside of Shaar Yaffo and for the first time in my life, I was personally privileged to perform this precious mitzvah that is tied to the Holy Land of Israel. It was no longer an abstract mitzvah that the Rabbis performedfor me but something very real and tangible. I felt very blessed. May the abstract learning of Karbonos become so real to us all speedily in our days.


From Rav Efrati’s home, we went back to the Mir where I was privileged to hear a shiurfrom Moreinu Rav Nosson Tzvi Finkel shlitta. I also spent some time with the Rosh Yeshiva before the tzibbur came and agreed to host a fundraising meeting in our Baltimore home for the Yeshiva later this summer. For those who pledged tzeddakah for our safe return but did not designate it, I would ask that you direct your contribution to the Mir as I believe it contributed to my yeshua. I then made my way home to prepare for Shabbos. At the request of Rav Aharon Feldman shlitta, I received several distinguished rabbonim asking for my assistance for a very special situation.

That Shabbos, Rena, Moshe and I hosted a large family of friends. We all had a wonderful and uplifting Shabbos, davening Kabbolas Shabbos with the Kugelman minyan at the Kotel, Shachris at the Churva Shul,where I was called to an aliyah from our Sefer Torah, and Mincha at the Ramban Shul. I then took my guests on a tour of the Old City, including a panoramic view from outside the dome of the Churva. After a longer than usual seudah shlishis we made our way to the Kotel for Maariv and dancing in honor of Lag B’Omer.

The next day, Sunday, Lag B’Omer, was my last day in Yerushalayim. It might very well have been my last day on Earth. As I write this, it gives one pause to reflect on how we spend our time. The secular world is fond of lecturing that time is money. We know better – time is life.

I woke up and went to shul. When I returned, I relieved my son-in-law babysitting little Binyomin, so Moshe could go to shul and Rena could sleep. I wished then that I had done this more for my wife and kids. After breakfast, my chavrusa neighbor and friend, Tzvi Aryeh Ingber, came to learn. He also runs the Food Project in the Old City, one of the best and purest tzedakkahs in the world, so I gave him a nedavafor the project, including paying a pledge I had missed paying. I also gave a nedava to my friend Aron Fuchs, from the Zilberman Yeshiva. Reb Aron was the one who made our hachnasas Sefer Torah so special last year and always is willing to help me get my guests a personalized Churva tour. The Zilbermans are pure and holy people who are filled with ahavas Hatorah, ahavas Eretz Yisrael, and ahavas Am Yisrael. It is a special zchus for my family to have a close relationship with all of them. For lunch we went to Rena’s apartment in Ramat Eshkol, where we met Moshe between sedarim. I took a brief nap, played with the baby and helped Rena format a project. During that time, I received a call from Baltimore from my wife that Dr. Lew Romer was looking for me urgently. She told him I was in Israel and he said he needed to talk to me right away. Linda was worried that it was a medical problem. I called Lew back and he told me that there was an urgent tzedakkah matter. I had been discussing this matter with him over several months but could not make a commitment due to radical changes in Medicare reimbursement over the last year. However, this time, I gave him my pledge. I then made some calls relating to family business. When I called Linda back to report on all the phone calls, I told her the story and related that Dr. Romer emphatically told me, “It is urgent that you do this now.” At the time I thought he was talking about his project. Now I know he meant me.

Rena and I then met Moshe for a beautiful dinner at one of our favorite restaurants. Moshe went to take a bechina and Rena walked back with me to the Old City to help me shlep all the suitcases to the Rova parking lot. On the way, in the Mamilla mall, I was approached to make a Maariv minyan something that never happened to me there before. I did not think I would be able to make another minyan due to my schedule, so I jumped at the chance. On the way home, I received a call from a prominent Rosh Yeshiva asking that I urgently examine his wife’s eyes. I keep equipment at my home for exactly this contingency. I explained that I could see her briefly if they could meet me at my home in thirty minutes, as the taxi to the airport was coming in forty-five minutes. Leaving my house, I dropped Rena off at her home, kissed her good-bye and preceded to Ben Gurion Airport. Little did I dream that it could have been my last kiss of my beloved daughter.

Not a bad day in retrospect – Torah, chesed, tzedakkah, tfillah b’tzibur, quality time with your family. I told you the details not to toot my horn as I cannot say I always have such days filled with accomplishment. Rather, I wanted to demonstrate how Hashem gives each of us the opportunity to seize these wonderful mitzvos every day if we only look for them and take advantage of them. I was just fortunate enough to grab hold of them that day. Did this make a difference in the end? Only Hashem knows. However, looking through the retrospectascope, after apparently cheating the Malach, I have a new perspective and appreciation for what is important and what matters. That is why I thought it fitting to include the mundane details of the last several days in this essay, as I believe they are connected to what unfolded later that night. Those who gave me the opportunity to learn Torah, daven, do chesed were doing me the biggest favor. They may have saved my life. There is no way to ever properly thank them as well as all of you who came together at a time of crisis.

The airport and takeoff were quite uneventful. I had been through this routine scores of times. This trip I was sitting in seat 2C. As I need to sleep on the plane in order to go to work the next day, I changed into more comfortable casual clothing. Before takeoff there was about a forty-minute delay with a bunch of technicians going back and forth to the 777 cockpit, but I have seen this many times before and they seemed confident that they had solved whatever problem was bothering them. About fifteen minutes after take off the pilot announced over the intercom that there was a problem with the left wheel. After consulting with headquarters, they had decided to dump the fuel in the Mediterranean and then return to Ben Gurion Airport. Either the plane would be fixed or we would transfer to a new plane. I was annoyed. This never happened before. I was scheduled to see patients in Baltimore starting at 11:30 a.m. and now I would have to reschedule some or all of them. Where were we going to put them? We would have to figure it out later. The pilot said it would take at least a half an hour to dump the fuel. It was already around 2 a.m. Israel time. After watching the plane continuously circle for several rounds on the computer map about 100 miles west of Israel at 10,000 feet, sleep overtook me. Just as I use anesthesia to limit anxiety and pain in patients, G-d was now putting me under sedation so that I did not have to deal with a painful situation.

I was awakened four hours later by a steward in order to bring my seat to an upright position for landing. He informed me that they decided to wait until daylight before landing – hence the delay. I reasoned that if it really was an emergency, like the New York US Air flight that landed in the Hudson River, they would have landed right away. In this case, we all thought they were taking extra precautions “just in case.” Everyone in my cabin exuded calm. The crew was very calm and professional. They were joking but at the same time reviewing procedures on opening the slides from the doors. Two of my Israeli seatmates sitting in my row were asked to help and given printed directions in Hebrew. There was no panic, and no hysteria – just calm. Hearing that we might need to exit using the slides, I changed my clothes. I took my Israel and American phones, my wallet, passport and money with me as well, not knowing when they would transfer the carry-ons if I did not carry them off. At no point did I feel I was going to die. Either the danger was overplayed on the ground or underplayed in the air. Perhaps both. In this case, it worked to our advantage.

It is like the story in the Gemorah where the person gave tzedakkah before going to sleep. He awoke ignorant to the reality that the tzedakkah saved him from a snake that could have killed him. In Shemonah Esraiwe say several times daily, “Melech ozair, umoshiah umagain,” the King who helps, saves and shields. To those on the ground Hashem saved us from a clear danger. To those of us in the air, He shielded us from danger or even clear understanding of the danger. If not for that, the five hours in the air would have been Gehenom.

I was later told by those on the ground as well as by my fellow passengers that several F-16 jets from the Israeli Air Force flew by at dawn to inspect the bottom of the plane from below and help make a determination on how the plane would land. If the landing gear was missing, not dropping or not functional, my understanding was that they would spray foam on the runway for a crash landing to minimize the risk of fire. However, apparently the landing gear was in place as we landed in a soft manner after a very steep and rapid approach to Ben Gurion, all the while accompanied by the F-16s. During the final approach I recited Tehillim by heart. As I did not think I was in mortal danger, I did not even think to recite Viduy. Maybe that was a mistake. At touchdown there was spontaneous applause, like there used to be forty years ago upon landing in Israel. However, there still was no “Haveinu Shalom Aleichem” (popular Israeli welcome home song that was played on every El Al flight landing in Israel decades ago).

As a surgeon, I deal regularly with very pressured, sometimes life-and-death situations, where there is little margin for error. The key is to remain calm and focused. Calm in the person in authority also calms those around him. Proper training and knowledge of the options are also essential. In this respect, the El Al crew performed their duties in an exemplary fashion, creating a Kiddush Hashem. The Ribbono Shel Olam, in his infinite chessed, guided the jet down to a perfect landing through his talented shlichim. I began my trip with an up close look at the players in the book “Start Up Nation”. Now I was treated to a very personal lesson on the real reasons for success in the Start Up Nation that are not recognized in this book – Yiddishe seichel and Hashgacha Pratis.

As we were still rolling down the runway, through the window I saw hundreds of emergency vehicles parked about a half mile away, their lights twinkling and flashing in the distance. I saw many other emergency vehicles. At touchdown, I immediately switched on my cell phone to call my wife in Baltimore. I thought she would be shocked to hear my voice as at that point she would expect that I would be over Europe or the Atlantic. I wanted to inform her that we had a mechanical problem that required our return to Tel Aviv. I didn’t want her to worry when she did not hear from me in the morning at the scheduled time for landing for the first flight, which was 5:40 am Monday. I also wanted her to call Terri Cain, my Office Manager, to reschedule the patients for Monday afternoon.

I didn’t comprehend at first what she was telling me. “How did you know?” I asked naively. “It was just a little mechanical problem in an airplane,” I proclaimed.

“Are you kidding?” she screamed. “The whole world knows and has been davening for the plane to land safely for the last few hours!”

I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t believe it eight hours later.

Linda continued, “Our family and friends are at our house davening. Rabbi Hauer is here. Jerry and Sara are here. Your brother is here. Laura is here. Our friends are here (she named them all). Our kids are here davening their hearts out. Ari came home from the hospital to be with Inbal in Philadelphia. We woke up Rena and Moshe in Yerushalayim to daven. At the Durso wedding I heard that the Chassan and Kallah said Tehillim before they left. They said Tehillim after Maarivat Shomrei Emunah (the Baltimore synagogue where I had served as president six years ago). They said Tehillim at Ner Yisroel (Ner Israel Rabbinical College in Baltimore) as you were landing. Your staff is praying. The whole world has been davening for your safe return! It is all over the Internet. It is on television. It is on Facebook.”

Then my son Dovie got on the phone. “Dad, are you okay?” I later saw an email from Dovie sent to me while we were circling over the Mediterranean. While I slept in the Heavens those on Earth moved the Heavens. The email said, “Dad, can you contact us in anyway? We love you very much!” I would have texted “I love you” if I thought they knew or if I realized we were in such danger. However, the chessed the Ribbono Shel Olam granted me was that I was just as clueless while awake as I was when I was asleep.

I was stunned as I emerged from G-d’s anesthesia. I started to heave and cry as I hung up. The plane taxied a few hundred feet more and then stopped in the middle of the tarmac. Several trucks with steps approached the plane, as in the days of the old airport. I was next to the front door. The door opened. In walked the beaming and clearly relieved Mankal (Director General) of El Al. I congratulated him and the rest of the crew for a job well done. I gathered my carry-ons and was one of the first people down the steps. As my feet touched terra firma, I bent down and kissed the Holy ground of Eretz Yisrael, thankful to be alive and back in Israel. I had not kissed the ground in years. Apparently G-d was not happy to have us leave and wanted us back.

I stepped onto the bus and called all my kids and my wife once again. I learned that my mechutan Tuvia Eiger, who lives in New York, monitored the landing live on the internet by listening to Reshet BET and by refreshing the Maarivwebsite. Ari had the presence of mind to call Rabbi Ezra Shapiro, RAM at Yeshivat Shaalvim,who monitored Israeli radio live. It was Tuvia and Ezra who called immediately to tell my family that we were safe. The bus took us back to the terminal.

At the terminal we immediately went to daven Shachris at the shul there. The shul was packed and very hot. I was too overcome by emotion to have proper kavanah. However, my tears carried my prayers heavenward. After krias HaTorahI recited Birkas Hagomel. I recite this bracha routinely after each trans-Atlantic flight. Never again will these amazing words of Chazal be routine.

Back in the lounge, I checked my emails and saw the coverage on Yeshiva World and other news sites on the internet. I started to tremble and weep, as I was stunned once again by what was reported and prepared on the ground if chas v’shalom things did not go well. I received many phone calls from family and friends in America and Israel, learning new details from each one. I have yet to sift through and process the many emails and postings. Despite the inherent dangers, in this instance social media were used properly l’shaim shamayim and facilitated Klal Yisrael joining together on a moment’s notice to pray for me, the other passengers and the crew. Many passengers were returning from celebrating Lag B’omer at the kever of Rav Shimon Bar Yochai. Perhaps in that zechus we were spared.

I feel very humbled and awed. I do not feel worthy to have been the recipient of so many tefillos and acts of tzeddakah and of Hashem’s mercy. I may never know all the people who davened for me. There are no words to express my profound gratitude to you all. There is no way to reciprocate and properly thank you. I am blessed to have such wonderful friends and family and to live in two amazing communities in Baltimore and Yerushalayim.

To my dear wife Linda and my children, Ari, Inbal, Aliza, Dovie, Nina, Rena and Moshe, and to my eineklach: you are the treasures of my life. I want to hold you all very tightly and never let go. You made me very, very proud through your conduct in a very difficult and frightening situation for you that I wish you never had to endure.

Finally, I must thank the Ribbono Shel Olam who is the ultimate Gomel Chessed and Rachamim. For the last several decades I have been privileged to serve as the Shaliach Tzibbur for on Rosh at Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion Congregation in Baltimore and for Musaf on Yom Kippur at Chazon Yechezkiel Synagogue in Yerushalayim Haatikah the closest shul to the Kodesh Hakedoshim. The words of the Chazzan’s Hinneni ring in my ears.

“V’af all pi sheine chedai v’ahgun l’kach, lachein avakesh mimcha, Elokai Avrohom, Elokei Yitzchak, v’Elokei Yaakov. Adoshem, Adoshem Kayl Rachum v’chanun, Elokei Yisrael. Shakai Ayom v’norah. Heyei na matzeich darkei, asher ani holach laamod u’lvakeish rachamim ali v’al sholchai.”

“And even though I am not adequate and fitting for this, even so I beseech from You, G-d of Abraham, G-d of Isaac and G-d of Jacob. Our Master, Our Master, G-d of Mercy and Compassion, G-d of Israel. The Ruler of Nature, Awesome and Overpowering. Please make me successful along my path on which I travel to stand and request mercy for me and for those whom I represent.”

Usually, I am advocating for others in vulnerable situations. Here, the tables were turned. I was now the one in a vulnerable position with everyone else advocating for me. The doctor was now the patient. Quite humbling.

We run, run, run every day. Work is so important. We often forget who runs the world, and why we are really here and what we are really supposed to be doing. We often don’t take advantage of the “little things” in life that now I see are the “big things”. In our Western society we are focused on ourselves and getting ahead. We need to step back, pay attention and listen to the “kol dmamah dakkah” where Hashem is constantly telling us what to do. We need to do this individually and as a nation.

Klal Yisrael is one large family. We worry about, care for and love each other. We are willing to drop everything and respond immediately when our help is needed, even for a total stranger. But he is not really a stranger. He is mishpacha. That is why we feel pain when chas v’challilah another Jew is in danger or injured, even if we never met him, he lives in a different country and speaks a different language. Our neshomos come from the same source, so we feel that ruchnius bond. It also is in our spiritual DNA transmitted to us from our Patriarchs and Matriarchs. In my case, I am overwhelmed by the concern, love and care shown to my family and me by you and by Hashem; I learned about this only after I landed back in Tel Aviv. Hence the title of this article, “Touched by a Landing.” I do not know why this happened, but I do know we are all changed for the better as a result.

My precious friends, please recognize and seize the myriad of life saving mitzvah opportunities Hashem in His unlimited kindness grants us throughout every single day. Do them with a full heart. Your life in this world may be saved because of them. Certainly, your life now and eternal life after this world will be enhanced immeasurably. None of us knows how much time we have left. This could be your last day. Time is life. We can never recapture it. Use it to the fullest.

Please keep praying. The achdus of our tefillos shake the highest levels in the Heavens. The tears of our tefillos together for one another join forces to form a tsunami that can break all barriers. Never give up. Hashem hears our prayers and our cries and cries with us.

May we soon merit to see our next trip to Artzeinu Hakedosha be the last one, where we will participate in the Geulah unfolding before us and sing Shira for the awesome miracles Hashem performs for us now and will perform for us in the near future.

Thank you my family. Thank you my friends. Thank you my community. Thank you Klal Yisrael. Thank you to the El Al crew for your professionalism, expertise and calm under fire. Thank you to the many volunteers from the Israeli Fire Department, MADA and Hatzalah who came to Ben Gurion in the middle of the night “just in case”. Thank you to the many airport staff and El Al management and ground personnel for their planning and outstanding work. Thank you to the Israel Defense Force’s Chayl Avir (Air Force) for checking out the situation over the Mediterranean Sea. Thank you Hashem for renewing for me the precious gift of life to continue to serve You.

May 26, 2011 – Postscript

Over the last few days I have begun to learn of the overwhelming response to daven on our behalf by Acheinu Bnei Yisrael. I am still trying to process all the stories and what they mean. My nephew Yehudah Nelkin went from shul to shul in Baltimore atMaariv time asking that Tehillim be said on our behalf at about the time of the landing. The scene was repeated across North America, from New York to Montreal, from Chicago to Los Angeles. Tehillim were said in the middle of wedding celebrations. In Chicago, my mechutan Jay Meystel learned of the situation after Maariv and went back into shul. “It’s an El Al plane from Tel Aviv to Newark. We need to say Tehillimfor their safety,” not even knowing a person on the plane, let alone that I was one of them. Total strangers come up to me in the street or in shulto tell me that they davened for us and how happy they are to see me back safely. One young man told my wife, “The fifteen minutes that I davenedfor your husband were the most intense minutes of daveningin my life.”

I have been struggling to make sense of this episode. What is the take away message? The original reports claimed that it was a faulty indicator light and that we were therefore, never really in danger. Even so, perception is reality. Now we have the expert reports of the Boeing engineers and Israeli aviation officials who examined the airplane over the last few days. In the words of these experts, “It was a miracle”. I watched videos of the plane landing and could hear the voice of the person in charge of the operation. It was clear that they were not certain of the outcome until several seconds after the plane landed. The outcome we experienced was not a foregone conclusion. The landing gear could have failed, subjecting the plane to hard landing on its belly. Under such circumstances, the plane could catch fire and/or break apart. My friend and next door neighbor, Dr. Paul Volosov, was in the emergency exit row and had been prepped to assist in assisting passengers if the slides were deployed. He told me he was told to open the door and look for fire. If there was fire, he was to direct the passengers to a safer exit door. After the successful landing, Paul overhead the hostess sitting in the jump seat opposite him. “Ibaditi shanim” (I lost years) she muttered under her breath. The facts were that the landing gear was broken and not fully functional. Perhaps due to everyone’s tefillos, they miraculously worked and did not fail. I would like to believe that the collective tefillos stormed the Heavens to change the outcome.

To me, G-d carefully orchestrated a test to evoke a desired response. Those on the ground in North America and those on the plane were tested, while Europe and the Middle East slept. We cannot know if this was a pop practice quiz or a final exam. Did we pass? Only time will tell. Clearly, these tefillos were needed.

The second Bais Hamikdash, was destroyed for sinas chinam, unbridled hatred. We know that in each generation, if the Bais Hamikdash has not been rebuilt, it is a sign that we have not rectified this sin. If the events of Sunday evening/Monday morning showed anything, it was a demonstration of ahavas chinam, even those we have not yet met. Let us hope that in the merit of this intense burst of ahavas chinam, we very soon will be privileged to see the hashraas HaShechinah b’giluy in the rebuilt Bais Hamikdash and welcome Moshiach.

Michael J. Elman, M.D. is president and founder of the Elman Retina Group, specializing in diseases of the retina and vitreous, and located in metropolitan Baltimore. Dr. Elman and his wife Linda are actively involved in many community and philanthropic organizations, both in the United States and in Israel. They split their time between their homes in Baltimore and Jerusalem. The Elmans served as Co-Chairs of the 2006 Orthodox Union Biennial National Convention, held in Jerusalem. Currently, Dr. Elman is an Honorary Vice-President for the Orthodox Union. The OU expresses its profound gratefulness for his rescue together with all the other passengers and members of the flight crew.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.