In a new twist to in-flight entertainment offerings, Israir Airlines has installed a Torah - a scroll of Jewish laws - on a Boeing 767-300ER.
The Israeli carrier says in a statement that it has become "the first airline to maintain an authentic Torah Scroll on board its aircraft".
The "Sky-Torah" was completed last week by a specially trained scribe in Florida and installed on Israir's lone 767. Israir had a special ceremony at New York's JFK airport to welcome the torah "with singing, dancing, live music and important Rabbis and dignitaries in attendance".
Israir uses its 767 to compete with its much larger rival, El Al Airlines, on the popular New York-Tel Aviv route. It also operates a Boeing 757 on European routes and three ATR 42s on domestic services.
The introduction of a Torah on Israir flights, which it says will enhance the prayers of its religious passengers, comes less than one month after a major dispute erupted between El Al and Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. Since its launch in 1948, El Al has traditionally not operated flights on the Jewish Sabbath, which starts at sunset on Friday and ends at sunset on Saturday. But at the beginning of December El Al operated several flights on Sabbath to transport passengers that were stranded due to flight cancellations caused by an airport workers' strike.
The ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, which accounts for about one quarter of El Al's passengers, threatened to boycott El Al after the rare Sabbath flights were completed. The boycott was called off last week after Israel's ultra-Orthodox Jewish community completed an agreement with El Al requiring the airline to maintain its revenue-losing policy of not flying on Sabbath. In the event of an extraordinary circumstance, El Al reportedly has agreed to consult with an ultra-Orthodox rabbi before operating any future flights on Sabbath.
Israir, founded in 1996, does operate some flights on Sabbath. But its Sky-Torah could entice religious passengers to fly Israir. While flying, Jewish religious passengers congregate in small single-sex groups during prayer times, often at the back of the aircraft or in the galley. Depending on the timing of the flight, prayers sometimes are required several times on a flight between New York and Tel Aviv as the aircraft crosses several time zones.
While prayers do not require a Torah, the presence of a Torah enhances a prayer experience and turns the aircraft into a virtual synagogue. The Torah scroll is no small book - it is a bulky handwritten and complete body of Jewish laws (see picture above). The Torah is typically only brought out and unscrolled on Sabbath and select holidays. Each Sabbath a unique section of the scroll is read during the prayer session. But the presence of a Torah on an aircraft during non-Sabbath days provides an environment conducive to praying and gives Israir an important religious symbol all Jewish passengers can identify with.