So, like I said, getting to Israel was more of a challenge than it was meant to be.
We got to the airport in plenty of time, thank goodness, even though there was a big ol' blizzard raging in Moscow, and they assured us that this (in their opinion) little bit of snow wouldn't keep our plane from taking off. We were all so glad to hear that. I have to say, I've travelled to Israel before, but this is the first time doing it from somewhere other than the USA. I really did feel like we were "going home" to Israel, the feeling of preparing to leave Russia was truly a lifting of a weight that I didn't even know had settled on my shoulders. I was so happy to be going to Eretz Yisrael. Russia certainly wasn't miserable, but the prospect of being in Israel was just so exciting after this. (A note, I think that I felt this way in 1996, when I went to Germany for three weeks in the year following my first Israel trip. I was abroad, yet not in quite the right place. I think this is what happened to me in Russia. For example, I kept referring to the mode of payment as shekels, even though I knew it was rubles. I think, to me, all trips abroad are not right unless Israel is involved. Who knew I felt this way...)
So we checked in and set out for some food! Many of those in our group would not eat in a restaurant in the airport (no hechsher, go figure) but I was very happy to have a slice of cheese pizza at Sbarro. It was actually very funny -- capitalism has only sort-of caught on here. Credit cards are still a bit of an issue, and all of us wanted to pay by credit card. The woman had to leave her cash register, walk to another one, and wait for it to dial in....this was going to take forever -- so one intelligent rabbi offered to pay for us all -- just to cut short the process...so thanks for dinner!
Then we went to the plane. It seemed so nice to get onto a plane and have the flight attendants speak a language I understood (Hebrew) rather than one I completely didn't get at all (Russian!). We settled into the flight, a completely full plane, I might add, which was in itself cool -- who knew during the refusenik days that someday a group of rabbis would be getting on an El Al/ flight from Moscow to Tel Aviv. Just so remarkable and amazing.
Our whole group (almost, except for the lucky few with Matmid -- the El Al frequent flyer program) were seated in middle seats -- so we were in one long middle row down the plane. Everything seemed perfectly normal, we pushed off from the gate and were de-iced. Then just as I was dropping off to a nice nap (the flight was scheduled to take off at 11:50pm Moscow time and arrive at Ben Gurion at 2:55am), and the plane was just starting to take off, I felt a huge jerk as we skidded to a stop from the speed of the takeoff. I don't think we ever got off the ground, just got going really fast and then we suddenly stopped. I was sure we were going to skid off the road. Yasher koach to our El Al pilot, because he certainly kept us on the runway. The announcement was made that there was an instrument malfuncion and they wanted to go back and check it out at the gate. We were all officially FREAKED out.
We taxied back to the gate, and the strangest thing happened. The man sitting in the row in front of me (on the aisle, and next to another of our group), suddenly got up, took his bag, and left the plane. We had no idea where he was going or who he was but it seemed odd and out of the ordinary -- something you never want to have happen on any plane, especially not on one going to Israel, and perhaps even more so not on one that has had something strange happen like an aborted take-off. We were even more freaked out.
Everyone got up and stood around trying to figure out what was going on, and there was a great deal of speculation....we were sure we'd have to spend Shabbat in Moscow. The prospect was not good. Then the pilot told us all to sit down, that they'd give us a drink and start the movie while they worked on things. I think the flight crew wanted to go home as badly as we all did! So we sat down, and most of us had a stiff drink (scotch, thank you) to help us out with the stress of this situation. The movie that they started was called The Forgotten and in case you've never seen it (I haven't, just a preview and I knew I didn't want to) -- it's about a mother who loses her child, and we think there's a plane crash involved in this too. Well....this was probably not the best choice of movie. As we continued to sit there (I was reading), suddenly the pilot came over the p.a. and told us that we were changing the movie because it just wasn't appropriate. (This was, to me, an only-in-Israel kind of moment!) So they changed the movie to some dumb comedy, a much better choice.
FINALLY -- they told us it was all okay and, wait, I think they said something like: "We're going to try this take-off again." The "try" in there didn't sit so well but what were we going to do!? So....we "TRIED" again. Now, remember the guy who got up and got off the plane? He came back. Turns out, he was the mechanic! When our group member sitting next to him asked about it, he said to him -- "Israel believes in God" (or something like that) -- which is in fact not very comforting to hear, especially from the mechanic!!!!
And then...to make it all even more complicated, they told us we had to sit again. It turns out that the airport had to be closed down because someone Important was coming in (we think it was Putin, returning from the memorial at Auschwitz) and no flights could come in or out while this dignitary was landing. Oy...
Then it was time to take off. Let me tell you, there was a lot of praying going on during that take-off. Many tehillim (psalms) were said and lots of extra tefillot ha-derech (travellers' prayers)...and we took off....thank God it was all good and we were all safe.
The flight was about 4 1/2 hours, and I hardly slept at all, too wired up from the stress of our circumstances. But we were safe and sound.
We landed in Israel at about 6am, and it was so wonderful to be HOME.
I haven't seen the new airport terminal (it's only been open a short while) and it's gorgeous. Almost doesn't feel like Israel when you get out! But it is. And that is great. We got to our bus, we each got our cell phone that we are renting...and we were off to Yerushalayim as the sun was rising...the beauty of Israel after the cold snow of Moscow was remarkably contrasting. I was so glad to be here, not only for the love of Israel, but for the joy of the miracle of travel to our state from a place with the history of the FSU. Truly, the journey was a blessing.
My cell phone in Israel -- 972-055-666-5160. Feel free to call or text message...
Stay tuned for ISRAEL...