Most people planning a flight know well about the restrictions regarding lotions, liquids and creams; some, though, are less sure about the arba minim. Several years ago, as the yomim tovim approached, Agudath Israel of America’s Washington Office began getting inquiries from people making pre-Succos airplane travel plans, according to the office’s director and counsel Rabbi Abba Cohen.
“They were worried about not being allowed to bring their arba minim, particularly their lulavim, on board.” It appeared that they had every reason to worry, as airline and airport security personnel had indicated to them that carrying these items on board would indeed create difficulties.
Rabbi Cohen contacted the Department of Homeland Security’s Transportation Safety Administration (TSA) and laid out the problem: He explained to TSA officials that during the Succos season they could expect that hundreds of travelers would be attempting to board planes carrying “spear-like” palm fronds – objects likely unfamiliar to airline and airport personnel. He also explained to them what arba minim species were, their purpose and their use in holiday prayer rituals. It was critical both for the TSA and for observant Jews, Rabbi Cohen asserted, that guidance be sent out to ensure that airline and airport officials be made aware of the situation and that the religious items and those who carried them would have no problem clearing security.
The TSA responded by promptly issuing a directive to airports and carriers, briefly describing the holiday and the travel period in question and advising that “TSA’s standard operating procedures do not prohibit the carrying of such agricultural items through the airport or the security checkpoints, or on airplanes.”
“These plants are not on TSA’s Prohibited Items List,” according to the directive, which has been issued every year since and was recently re-posted on the TSA website. “And, as always, TSA is committed to treating all passengers, including passengers who may be observing Sukkot, with respect and dignity during the screening process.”
Rabbi Cohen commented, “The TSA is to be commended for being so sensitive to this religious issue and to the concerns of observant Jews, and for acting so expeditiously in finding an appropriate solution. Once the issue was explained to them, they immediately assessed the security issues and took steps to ensure that religious rights would not unnecessarily be compromised – an instructive case of how security concerns and civil rights can coexist without problem.”
The following is an OU press release:
TSA to Permit Lulavim and Etrogim During Airplane Travel
Today, the national Transportation Security Administration (TSA) declared a special travel period for the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. The travel period will begin approximately on Wednesday, September 30, 2009, and end on approximately on Tuesday, October 13, 2009. This policy will allow observant Jewish travelers to carry their Lulavim and Etrogim in airports and through security checkpoints. (During the Sukkot holiday, Jews utilize four species of plants as part of their daily prayer service. See Leviticus 23:40.)
The Orthodox Union (Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America), the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization, worked with TSA in the framing of this important policy.
“TSA works closely with members of the Jewish faith to ensure our security workforce is familiar with the religious holiday Sukkot, and is familiar with the prayer items that passengers may be traveling with,” said Kimberly Walton, Special Counselor for the Transportation Security Administration”.
Nathan Diament, public policy director of the Orthodox Union stated:
“The Orthodox Union is pleased to work with TSA on this important issue. This special travel period will allow observant Jews to travel freely during Sukkot while still being able to practice the laws of Lulav and Etrog that are crucial to the holiday’s observance. We commend TSA on all of their efforts.”