NEW YORK — Francesca Hogi, 40, had settled into her aisle seat for the flight from New York to London when the man assigned to the adjoining window seat arrived and refused to sit down. He said his religion prevented him from sitting beside a woman who was not his wife. Irritated but eager to get underway, she eventually agreed to move.
Laura Heywood, 42, had a similar experience traveling from San Diego to London via New York. She was in a middle seat — her husband had the aisle — when the man with the window seat in the same row asked whether the couple would switch positions. Heywood, offended by the idea that her sex made her an unacceptable seat mate, refused.
“I wasn’t rude, but I found the reason to be sexist, so I was direct,” she said.
More airline passengers, particularly on trips between the United States and Israel, are now sharing stories of conflicts between ultra-Orthodox Jewish men trying to follow their faith and women just hoping to sit down. Several flights from New York to Israel during the last year have been delayed or disrupted because of the issue, and with social media spreading outrage and debate, the disputes have spawned a protest initiative, an online petition, and a spoof safety video from a Jewish magazine suggesting a full-body safety vest (“Yes, it’s kosher!”) to protect ultra-Orthodox men from women seated next to them on airplanes.
Some passengers say they have found the seat-change requests simply surprising or confusing. But in many cases, the issue has exposed and amplified tensions between different strains of Judaism.
Jeremy Newberger, a 41-year-old documentary filmmaker who saw an episode on a Delta flight from New York to Israel, was among several Jewish passengers who were offended.
“I grew up Conservative, and I’m sympathetic to Orthodox Jews,” he said. “But this Hasid came on, looking very uncomfortable, and wouldn’t even talk to the woman, and there was 5 to 8 minutes of ‘What’s going to happen?’ before the woman acquiesced and said, ‘I’ll move.’ It felt like he was being a yutz.”
Representatives of the ultra-Orthodox insist that the behavior is anomalous and rare. “I think that the phenomenon is nowhere near as prevalent as some media reports have made it seem,” said Rabbi Avi Shafran, director of public affairs at Agudath Israel of America, which represents the ultra-Orthodox community.
Shafran noted that despite religious laws prohibiting physical contact between Jewish men and women who are not their wives, many ultra-Orthodox men follow the guidance of an eminent Orthodox scholar, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who counseled that it was acceptable for a Jewish man to sit next to a woman on a subway or bus so long as there was no intention to seek sexual pleasure from any incidental contact.
But multiple travelers, scholars, and the airlines say the phenomenon is real. Rabbi Ysoscher Katz, an Orthodox Talmud scholar who grew up in an ultra-Orthodox sect, said, “When I was still part of that community, and on the more conservative side, I would make every effort I could not to sit next to a woman on the plane, because of a fear that you might touch a woman by accident.”