Holding Antisemites Accountable.

Close this search box.

Jewish Couple Suing American Airlines After Flight Over Prayer Shawl Incident

An elderly Brooklyn couple was booted from an American Airlines flight because they refused to place a bag containing their sacred prayer shawl on the floor, according to a lawsuit.

Roberto and Elana Birman were heading home from Miami on Flight 322 in August when the “humiliating” incident unfolded, they told The Post.

Roberto, 76, and Elana, 71, brought only a briefcase, a purse and his Tallit bag — a small, 8.5 inch-by-8.5-inch, clear plastic carrier for Roberto’s prayer book and shawl — onboard. They sat in aisle seats across from each other.

A flight attendant began checking overhead bins ahead of take off, pulled the Tallit bag from the overhead bin, and asked, “Whose is this?”

When Roberto claimed it, she allegedly threw the bag on his lap and said it had to go under his seat, the couple said.

“It’s a religious item, it cannot go under the seat,” Roberto explained, removing his baseball cap to reveal his kippah covering his head and explaining that as an Orthodox Jew, he is forbidden to place the precious shawl on the floor.

“It doesn’t matter,” the attendant allegedly sniffed.

“She was screaming at me and pointing her finger,” he said.

The couple, who are married 52 years and have four kids, came to the U.S. in 1985 from Argentina, where they encountered frequent anti-Semitism.

“I couldn’t believe this was happening to me in America,” said Roberto, noting, “We use these items every single day to pray.”

Elana Birman said the flight attendant’s request was akin 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.

There is a strong taboo in Jewish law against putting an item such as a Tallit bag on the floor, two rabbis said.

“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 pilot came over but didn’t speak to them, the Birmans said. Eventually, a ground crew member was called and urged them to follow him off the plane, they said.

As soon as they were ushered out, the crew member allegedly told his coworkers, “Close the gate!”

“What are we, criminals?” Elana recalled thinking. She said her husband “was devastated.”

“It was out of proportion” to what had occurred, Roberto said, adding of the flight attendant who started it all, “She made me so nervous. I was shaking.”

They were left without Roberto’s diabetes medications, which were in the checked luggage, got no help from the airline for securing food or a place to stay that night, and were forced to take a taxi to a friend’s home as a hurricane swept in.

They’re suing 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 their lawyer, Brad Gerstman, adding, “The flight attendant and pilot’s conduct was as offensive as it was illogical.”

An American spokesman said the airline is reviewing the lawsuit.