Elderly Brooklyn couple sues American Airlines after being ejected over prayer shawl

Elderly Brooklyn couple sues American Airlines after being ejected over prayer shawl
An American Airlines plane taxis on the runway at the Miami International Airport on June 16, 2021, in Miami, Florida (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

An elderly couple was ejected from an American Airlines flight after refusing to place a bag containing religious material on the floor, per a lawsuit.

The "humiliating" episode unfolded when Roberto and Elana Birman were flying home to Brooklyn from Miami on Flight 322 in August. The couple, who sat in aisle seats across from each other, brought onboard only a briefcase, a purse, and a Tallit bag that carried a prayer book and shawl. MEAWW previously reported how a drunk couple was kicked off a JetBlue flight for lowering their face masks and shoving cabin crew. We also reported how a woman was removed from a Dallas-bound flight for hurling homophobic remarks.


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The Birmans had boarded the plane without incident, but things turned awry when a flight attendant began checking overhead bins ahead of take-off and pulled the Tallit bag from the overhead bin. “Whose is this?” she asked. When Roberto, 76, said it was his, she allegedly threw the bag on his lap and said it had to go under his seat.

“It’s a religious item, it cannot go under the seat,” Roberto explained. He went on to remove his baseball cap to reveal his kippah, noting that as an Orthodox Jew, he was forbidden to place the religious shawl on the floor. “It doesn’t matter,” the attendant allegedly responded.

Speaking to the New York Post, the couple revealed how they immigrated to the US in 1985 from Argentina, where they faced frequent anti-Semitism. “I couldn’t believe this was happening to me in America,” said Roberto. “We use these items every single day to pray," he noted. Elana Birman, 71, who has been married to Roberto for 52 years and has four kids together, likened the flight attendant’s request to asking a Christian to “throw a cross on the floor” where it could be stepped on. “Nobody said a word. Nobody defended us. It was embarrassing,” she said.

Two rabbis told the newspaper that there's a strong taboo in the Jewish faith against putting sacred items such as the Tallit bag on the floor. “It’s considered disgraceful,” said Rabbi Mitchell Rocklin. “It would be like taking a Bible or a Koran and dumping it on the floor.” 

The Birmans recalled how the pilot came over but didn't interact with them. A ground crew member was eventually summoned and escorted the elderly couple off the plane, they said. Shortly after being ushered out, the crew member told his colleagues to close the gate. “What are we, criminals?” Elana remarked, adding that her husband “was devastated.” Meanwhile, Roberto said the action was "out of proportion" to what had occurred and especially since it was the flight attendant who allegedly started it all. “She made me so nervous. I was shaking," he explained.

The embattled couple was reportedly left without Roberto's diabetes medications as they were in the checked luggage. Meanwhile, the airline allegedly did not assist them in securing food or a place to stay that night. The couple was also forced to take a taxi to a friend's residence due to an imminent hurricane. Now, they have filed a lawsuit against American Airlines for unspecified damages. “My clients were ejected from the flight based on the prejudices and complete lack of sensitivity of American Airlines employees for reasons wholly unrelated to security,” said Brad Gerstman, a lawyer representing the Birmans. “The flight attendant and pilot’s conduct was as offensive as it was illogical," he added. The airline is currently reviewing the lawsuit, a spokesman told The Post.

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