Observant Jewish air travelers before and during Sukkos generally had no problems navigating airports or boarding planes with their arba minim. As was widely reported, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS)’s Transportation Safety Administration was informed by Agudath Israel of America’s Washington office a number of years ago about the nature and use of the Jewish ritual items, and was persuaded that they posed no security concerns.
But what observant travelers from Canada to the United States may not have known was the work done by the Agudah D.C. office’s director and counsel Rabbi Abba Cohen to help ensure that the “four species” they carried were not confiscated as a threat to agriculture and public health.
As a result of that work, shortly before Sukkos began, an official memorandum was sent – as in each of the past 10 years since Rabbi Cohen first raised the issue – by DHS’s Customs and Border Protection agency to U.S.-Canadian border officials, setting forth procedures for handling and inspecting arba minim.
The concern is the inadvertent spread of the Mediterranean fruit fly and other destructive pests into this country. Canadian regulation is more lenient than that of the U.S., as the cold climate there is not hospitable to the insects.
“In the late 1990s, we began to receive numerous phone calls from observant Jews entering the U.S. who were not allowed to retain possession of their arba minim,” said Rabbi Cohen. “Some travelers saw their minim destroyed – which, as one might imagine, deeply disturbed them.”
Rabbi Cohen points out that issues of health and safety were at stake, which the border officials understandably took very seriously. But they were often unaware of the holiday, he explains, and uninformed as to the appropriate agricultural inspection procedures. Consequently, those responsible for ensuring the safety of American agriculture and health sometimes summarily confiscated and even destroyed one or more of the holiday species.
As a result of the Agudah representative’s intervention back then, officials are now provided the information they need to do their jobs properly and determine if a particular plant needs to be prevented from arriving in the U.S. While inspection can still turn up indications of infestation, with species denied entry, with better-informed officials, it is not a common occurrence.
After Agudath Israel raised the issue with the DHS, steps were taken to better inform the observant Jewish community north of the border. Rabbi Saul Emanuel, executive director of the Vaad Ha’ir of Montreal, worked with Rabbi Cohen and DHS officials and has provided travelers with information they need to know to successfully bring their arba minim across the border.
“Isolated incidents continue,” Rabbi Cohen notes cautiously, “and need to be addressed.” But, he adds, both authorities charged with airport and aircraft security and those whose bailiwick is health and safety alike, have been responsive to our overtures and suggestions. “Over the years, we have made much progress on both fronts.”
One paragraph in the DHS memo well communicates the agency’s sensitivity to observant Jewish travelers.
“The ethrog,” it reads, “is a lemon-like fruit that has special significance during the Jewish religious festival of thanksgiving celebrated in the autumn. The fruit must be handled with extreme care. If damaged, the fruit loses its significance and no longer has value in the religious festival of thanksgiving. Therefore, allow the passenger to open the container, unwrap the ethrog, present it for inspection, rewrap and re-box the ethrog in the inspection area.”