Passengers on United Airlines Flight 85 from Tel Aviv to Newark, N.J., on July 31, who were diverted to Cleveland because of weather, got a kosher care package delivered by two local rabbis.
Rabbi Dan Eleff, owner of dansdeals.com, who has a Twitter account that reaches 95,000 people, noticed a thread, “Tel Aviv to Cleveland nonstop.” Eleff, who traveled to Israel in June on the same Dreamliner flight, said he knew there are no nonstop flights from Tel Aviv to Cleveland.
He learned that Newark had thunderstorms and the flight was headed for Cleveland Hopkins International Airport.
“He (a passenger) said it was going to land in Cleveland at like 6:20 p.m. and then it was going to turn right back around and go back to Newark, probably after they refueled,” Eleff said. “So obviously nobody was going to be leaving the plane for that short of a delay. So, I’m like, I’ll just keep an eye on it.”
Eleff was planning to attend a council meeting at Waxman Chabad Center in Beachwood, where he attends synagogue. He decided to reach out to see if anyone on his Twitter feed knew passengers on the flight.
“One person had a nephew on the plane he couldn’t reach,” Eleff said. “Another person said their mom was on the plane. Another had a cousin on the flight. So I got through to several people who were on this flight. I messaged them.”
He asked them to keep him posted on the progress.
“Someone finally told me that our crew just timed out so they’re going to have us deboard,” he said. “They have to find customs agents to let us get into Hopkins because they’re not usually staffed at that time.”
Eleff did a quick calculation and realized the passengers might be in Cleveland all night.
At that point, he said, “I sprang into action.”
His first step: post on Cleveland Jewish Facebook to see if anyone could help him get food to the passengers. He said people at Lev Miriam Bikur Cholim of Cleveland reached out to Cleveland police to see if they could help. The police told him that without anyone in “distress,” there was nothing they could do to intervene.
“Of course, no one’s in distress. Nobody’s starving to death,” Eleff said. “Nobody wants to skip dinner, either. And I found out there were kids on the flight. People were hungry and there was no kosher food. And they’re getting off the plane, going through customs at about 9 p.m., 9:30 p.m., 10 p.m. It’s a pretty slow process because it was pretty low staffing at customs for a plane that has a 274-passenger capacity.”
Eleff said all of the shops at Hopkins were closed.
“So we couldn’t get chips or anything like that.”
Eleff canceled his meeting and headed to Trader Joe’s in Woodmere as it was closing at 9 p.m. He picked up rolls and babka, then dashed to get his friend, another non-practicing rabbi, Dr. Shmulie Margolin, who had, meanwhile, bought blocks of kosher cheese from Ohio Kosher, a wholesale distributor of kosher food, in Beachwood. The two headed to the airport.
On the way, Eleff called United to let them know that kosher food was on the way.
“United called Cleveland and said none of their agents are answering the phone,” he said, but they also assured him that the agent at the counter would issue him a gate pass for the delivery of the food. “But when I got to the United counter, there was one agent there, and she said it was against their policy.
“I was trying to emphasize to her that there are children there that have not had dinner,” he said. “I understand that you provided pizza to all the passengers, but for religious Jewish passengers, they’re not going to eat non-kosher food unless it’s a life and death situation. If it’s just a matter of missing dinner, they’re not going to eat non-kosher food and you have hungry passengers who were diverted to Cleveland. They were expecting to be home by now. Can you help me out here and they just said no. We can’t help you out at all. So that surprised me. I was a little disappointed in that response.”
At that point, Eleff and Margolin went to security, which they had heard was set to close at 10 p.m. when they arrived at 9:55 at the airport. The Transportation Safety Administration agent told them the food could not go through security without a passenger.
“Then we found this girl who had come out of security,” he said, referring to a person who lives in New York City but whose Cleveland Heights family had come to the airport to see her when they learned of the diversion.
Eleff texted other passengers to help carry the rolls and cheese.
On paper plates, passengers ate the food Eleff and Margolin delivered.
A pilot had to be flown in from Chicago to fly the plane to Newark and it landed at 3:58 a.m. Aug. 1.
Multiple attempts to reach United Airlines for comment were unsuccessful.