By Reuvain Borchardt
Seventeen teenaged Orthodox Jewish girls who were twice kicked off flights from Amsterdam to New York were forced to spend Shabbos in Europe, after KLM/Delta Airlines alleged non-compliance with rules, accusations the girls deny and say are antisemitically motivated.
This account of the incidents is based on Hamodia interviews with askanim, including Rabbi Yisroel Kahan of Oizrim Jewish Council in Monsey and Joel Rosenfeld of Bobov in Boro Park; relatives of the girls; and other passengers on the plane. Hamodia asked KLM and Delta for detailed responses, but the airlines only issued statements with broad allegations of “unruly behavior” and “refus[ing] to comply with crew instructions,” and did not respond to Hamodia’s request to describe the girls’ alleged infractions, nor did they respond to the girls’ allegations against airline staff.
The teenagers were part of a group of 56 girls, mostly from New York, who had been touring Jewish sites in Europe with Rebbetzin Shulamis Sternbuch of Israel.
Upon arrival in Amsterdam at the start of their trip on July 20, a KLM/Delta security official at the airport accused the girls of behaving improperly on the flight, cursing at flight crew and failing to follow mask guidelines. The girls denied these allegations, and said they fully complied with all rules and wore masks except when eating. The official threatened the girls with blacklisting. Askanim in New York were contacted and investigated the matter, and determined that no one had been placed on any blacklist.
When their two-week trip concluded, Rebbetzin Sternbuch and the few Israeli girls on the tour returned to Israel, while most of the group and their chaperone had a flight back to New York on Thursday, from Kiev with a stopover in Amsterdam.
On the KLM flight from Kiev, the flight crew was “harassing the girls the entire time,” according to a brother of one of the girls, who had spoken to his sister on the phone about the incident.
“Every few minutes, they were coming over to the girls, saying, ‘Fix your mask,’ even though the masks were on properly the entire time,” the brother, who declined to give his name, told Hamodia. “Then, when the girls started eating, the flight attendants said they were not allowed to eat because it was not the official meal time, but they didn’t say a word about the mask.”
When the group attempted to board the connecting flight in Amsterdam for New York, 17 of them were denied entry and told they could not board the flight. No specific reason was given. All 17 girls have last names beginning with A through K. The girls say this proves they were selected at random; KLM said these girls who were denied entry had booked tickets as one group.
The airline employee who banned the girls from the flight was the same security official who had threatened to blacklist them two weeks earlier.
When the chaperone, already on the plane, realized 17 of her girls were missing, she walked down the walkway toward the airport, pounding on the closed door. Officials did not want to let her back into the airport, but the woman insisted she would not leave her girls behind. Eventually she was allowed to rejoin the 17 girls in the airport. The rest of the group, who had been permitted to board the connecting plane, continued on to New York alone.
At the Amsterdam airport, KLM said it would put the 17 girls on another flight only if each paid a 2,000 euro fine.
The girls tried going to a Delta Airlines counter and book a Delta flight. But Delta, which is a partner airline with KLM, said the girls would need to pay the same 2,000 euros. The girls looked into booking a flight on another airline, but KLM said it would charge 200 euros for release of each piece of luggage.
“The girls are nervous and scared,” the brother told Hamodia as the girls waited in the airport, believing they were victims of antisemitic extortion. While the flight attendants did not make any antisemitic statements, the brother said, “This is obviously antisemitism. They targeted 17 Jewish girls, in alphabetical order, and they didn’t even bother giving a reason.”
Family members in New York then reached out to Jewish activists. Oizrim Jewish Council contacted Orthodox Jewish attorneys in the Netherlands, who worked on the girls’ behalf, racing to try to get the 17 girls and their chaperone on a flight to New York in time for Shabbos. Other activists and organizations, including UJO of Williamsburg and Joel Rosenfeld of Bobov, contacted offices of elected officials including U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), U.S. Rep. Nydia Velazquez (D-N.Y.) and U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), who intervened with officials at Delta Airlines to get the girls on a flight home. Chabad shluchim brought kosher food to the airport, and intervened with Dutch authorities and airline and airport officials.
Initially, the attorneys said they would buy tickets for a United flight, pay the fees to retrieve the luggage, and sue KLM. But following the intervention by the officials, Delta said it would put the girls on a flight Friday morning, for no fee.
In a statement to Hamodia early Friday morning, KLM said, “Safety is KLM’s top priority. KLM Royal Dutch Airlines does not tolerate any form of unruly behavior towards passengers or crew. When passengers endanger flight safety and thus the safety of themselves, other passengers and the crew, we take this very seriously. This also applies to passengers not adhering to COVID-19 measures. These measures are clearly communicated before and during travel to our passengers.
“On the 20th of July a large group of passengers on flight KL644 from New York JFK to Amsterdam refused to follow crew instructions on board. Upon arrival in Amsterdam this group was again cautioned and explained the possible consequences of unruly behavior by KLM’s security department. It was also made very clear that this was the last warning.
“The same group travelled from Kiev to Amsterdam on the 5th of August and again did not adhere to crew instructions and showed unruly behavior on board. Upon arrival, a group of … passengers (1 booking) was therefore offloaded and not allowed to travel on to New York. This group has been rebooked on a Delta flight from Amsterdam to New York today.”
The brother of one of the girls told Hamodia that the KLM statement is “a blatant lie.”
“Those girls were targeted because they were Jews. They were adhering to their rules and instructions the entire time,” he said. “In fact, many of the girls had slept through most of the flight and had no interactions with the flight staff.”
The girls spent the night in a cordoned-off area of the airport.
In the morning, their attorney brought them food.
At 4:20 a.m. Friday in New York (10:30 a.m. in Amsterdam), the Bobover askan Joel Rosenfeld spoke to the chaperone, who said that they were on the Delta plane, ready to go. But then, at 4:52, Rosenfeld received a call he described as shocking: the group had just been kicked off that plane, apparently due to one or more girls having switched seats.
A woman on the flight (who was not part of the group) had been traveling with her son, but they were assigned seats apart from each other. The woman, Neda Krauss of Long Island, told Hamodia that another man on the plane volunteered to switch seats so that Krauss and her son could sit near each other. Then, two of the Jewish girls nearby who had also been seated apart “asked if we could all switch things around so that the two girls would sit together and I would sit next to my son,” Krauss said. “It would be beneficial for everyone. And it was the most normal thing under any other circumstance. But then we were told by a steward that we not allowed to make any seat switches, and so we all went back to our seats.”
Krauss says that while the other man, and a few other passengers in the area, questioned why the flight attendants were not permitting seat switches, no one was particularly argumentative, and that neither the two girls nor any other members of their group uttered a word of protest, but simply went back to their seats as they were told. Krauss says that the flight attendants did not explain their reason for banning seat switches.
But the group of girls — and not Neda, her son, nor the other man — was then asked to leave the plane. In a statement to Hamodia, Delta said the group was kicked off for “refus[ing] to comply with crew instructions,” but did not elaborate. Delta did not respond to Hamodia’s request for details on the alleged infraction, nor did it respond to Hamodia’s queries about the passengers’ allegations regarding the behavior of airline officials.
Another passenger on the plane, who asked to be identified only as John and sat in a different area and did not witness the incident, told Hamodia that a Delta official later specifically mentioned to him the seat-switching issue as a reason the girls were kicked off. The official also told John that the airline had earlier said that any infraction by one of the girls would result in all of them being ejected. But when John had asked the flight attendants on the plane what the girls had done wrong, “the flight attendant was telling everyone that people in the back were not keeping their masks on and doing other things wrong. I asked them to be more specific, and they said there is a long list of things, but they didn’t elaborate , and didn’t mention a seat-switching issue.”
Krauss and the girls say that other than the switching seats, no one in the group of girls committed any infractions.
“The girls seemed petrified and scared,” Krauss says. “I really don’t know what the reason behind all this was.”
John says that because of the way the flight attendants were speaking about the girls, “everyone on the flight got angry at this group. They riled up everyone to be upset at the group.”
The girls say it was the same KLM/Delta security official who had threatened them with blacklisting the first time, then kicked them off the second flight, that was responsible for now kicking them off this third flight.
The group refused to leave the plane, on advice from their attorney, who was at the airport in Amsterdam and in communication with the chaperone.
All passengers were then forced to deplane, including the group.
While in the airport after deplaning, the chaperone filmed a brief video, which was widely seen on social media, in which Krauss and a girl who had switched seats described what happened.
Other girls took videos as well, including of the official they say is responsible for having them banned from the flights. But then the official forced them to delete the videos, saying they would not be allowed to leave the airport and witholding their passports until they deleted them. When the girls asked the man for his name, he refused to give it, and covered up his name tag.
John says that when he spoke with the girls in the airport and asked what had happened, “I couldn’t believe how divergent their version and the flight attendants’ versions were. While I didn’t see the incidents myself, when speaking with these girls, I didn’t sense any hint of rebelliousness. They were trying to be very compliant and in shock. They seemed really sweet and nice and polite.
“So a flight attendant got angry that these girls had switched seats, and they therefore delay hundreds of people for two hours, and then they blamed it on not wearing masks and not complying with rules.”
After the delay, all passengers — minus the 17 girls and their chaperone, but including the other passengers who had switched seats — were allowed back on the plane, which ultimately landed in New York at 2:30 p.m. Friday.
John says that the captain said on the microphone that “they had done this for our safety. They must have seen this as a PR problem and decided to twist it.”
Delta offered the passengers vouchers “as a goodwill gesture” due to their having been delayed. The girls, on the other hand, have been placed on Delta’s blacklist, pending an investigation.
Meanwhile, askanim once again contacted officials in America and Jewish activists in Europe, and began making arrangement for the girls to spend Shabbos in Antwerp and their eventual flight home.
Since the girls had only been in Amsterdam as an airport stopover, they did not have permission to actually enter the country. Dutch Chief Rabbi Binyomin Jacobs reached out to Gert-Jan Segers, a member of the Netherlands House of Representatives and leader of the governing Christian Union Party, who intervened on the girls behalf, allowing them to enter the Netherlands for the purposes of taking a train to Antwerp, Belgium, for Shabbos.
The girls arrived in Antwerp late Friday afternoon. Several people from the community welcomed them at the train station. Someone who had an empty house allowed them to use it, and a restaurant provided free food. Throughout Shabbos, they were visited by community members, who brought food and ensured that their needs were met.
The mother of one girl told Hamodia that the trip provided an “authentic European experience.”
“This was a group of serious girls, carefully vetted by Rebbetzin Sternbuch, who flew to Europe for an inspiring tour of kivrei tzaddidim, as well as Holocaust sites like Auschwitz, Majdenek, and the forests of Babi Yar,” said the mother, who asked not to be identified. “The girls got a their own small taste of Jew-hatred, too, being mocked and cursed at in Poland, and then being being thrown off flights by antisemitic airline-personnel. On the other hand, they were shown incredible love and warmth by the Antwerp Jewish community, where they spent a wonderful and memorable Shabbos together.
“I call that the authentic European experience.”
Askanim, passengers and relatives say that the airlines must make a thorough investigation into the incidents.
“On the face if it, this sounds like plain and simple antisemitism,” Rosenfeld said. “I am grateful to Sen. Schumer’s staff, who answered my calls at 5 a.m. Friday, and all the other officials and others who assisted as well. Sen. Schumer’s staff has assured us that this story is being investigated by executive-level Delta officials.”
“It is outrageous how these girls were disgraced,” said John, the passenger on the plane. “I don’t want this incident to be forgotten about. Delta needs to do an investigation, and determine what happened.”
On Sunday, the group took a direct flight from Brussels to Newark Airport, arriving at noon without incident — on United Airlines.