American Airlines (Shutterstock) (Shutterstock)
American Airlines

Roberto Birman refused to place his religious item on the floor under his seat after the flight attendant inexplicably pulled it from an overhead storage bin.

By Pesach Benson, United With Israel

A Brooklyn man has filed a lawsuit against American Airlines after being booted from a flight, the New York Post reported.

According to the lawsuit, 71-year-old Roberto Birman and his wife, Elana, boarded Flight 322 flying out of Miami in August. Shortly before takeoff, a flight attendant checking the overhead storage bins pulled Birman’s tallit (prayer shawl) bag out and asked whose it was. When Birman said it was his, the attendant tossed the pouch onto his lap and said it needed to be stowed under the seat.

The bag also contained a small siddur, or prayerbook, and tefillin (phylacteries).

Birman explained to the attendant that these were religious items that could not be kept on the floor. But that made no difference to the flight attendant.

“She was screaming at me and pointing her finger,” Roberto told the Post. “I couldn’t believe this was happening to me in America.”

The report doesn’t say whether the attendant indicated any reason to Birman why the bag could not be stowed overhead.

Elana told the Post that 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 added.

According to Jewish law, a tallit in a bag theoretically can be placed on the floor, though most people consider this disrespectful and prefer not to do so. However, a prayer book and phylacteries have a higher level of holiness and are treated more stringently in transport and storage.

Eventually, the pilot came over and talked to the flight attendant — but not the Birmans. At that point, they were told to follow a ground crew member off the plane. Once off the plane, the crewman told his co-workers to close the gate.

“What are we, criminals?” Elana recalled thinking to the Post.

“It was out of proportion” to what had occurred, Roberto said.

Adding insult to injury, the plane took off with the Birmans’ checked luggage, which included Roberto’s diabetes medication. According to the Post, the couple was forced to take a taxi to a friend’s house just ahead of an arriving hurricane after getting no assistance from the airline to arrange food or lodging.

The Birman’s lawyer, Brad Gerstman, told the Post the couple was “ejected from the flight based on the prejudices and complete lack of sensitivity of American Airlines employees for reasons wholly unrelated to security. The flight attendant and pilot’s conduct was as offensive as it was illogical.”

A spokesman for American Airlines declined to comment except to say the company’s lawyers were reviewing the suit.

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