An airplane encounter between Noa Kirel, Israel’s Eurovision finalist, and a top Orthodox rabbi has gone viral


((JR)) — A selfie taken on a flight to Tel Aviv has gone viral this week, serving as a symbol of unity in an increasingly divided Israel.

The photo was taken by Noa Kirel, the pop star who came in third in this year’s Eurovision competition over the weekend, and was headed home from the competition, which took place in Liverpool, England. Next to her in the frame, and on the plane, was Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Rimon, the head rabbi of Gush Etzion, a bloc of West Bank settlements south of Jerusalem.

Rimon was initially puzzled when a message on the plane’s TV screens read, “Well done, Noa. We’re proud of you,” he shared in a message initially sent to a family WhatsApp group. After he asked Kirel why congratulations were in order, and to whom, he said she explained her Eurovision appearance, surprised he didn’t recognize her. Rimon added that she said she had prayed at the contest and abstained from using her phone on Shabbat. Rimon offered himself as a rabbinic resource and Kirel took his information, sending him their picture as a first communication.

That picture exited the family chat after a friend of one of Rimon’s daughters saw it, photographed it and shared it, Rimon later wrote in another WhatsApp message that has gone viral.

The story has been shared widely in Hebrew-language WhatsApp groups as a heartwarming example of how people from different sectors of Israeli society can connect across divides. Religious and secular Israelis tend to live separately and vote differently — a split that for many has become more pronounced amid the right-wing government’s efforts to weaken Israel’s judiciary. Protests for the legislation in Jerusalem attract a largely Orthodox crowd. Attendees at the anti-government protests in Tel Aviv are mostly secular.

“Basically, you have a leading rabbi and celebrity who don’t know each other sitting next to each other on the plane, bridging segments of Israel and appreciating the greatness of the other,” wrote Rabbi Judah Kerbel of the Queens Jewish Center in New York City on Facebook. “It’s a nice story.”

Shmuel Reichman, an Orthodox rabbi and motivational speaker, also attempted in a Facebook post to answer the question “Why does this story resonate so much with everyone?”

Reichman wrote that the encounter showed that Rimon’s devotion to Torah has not led to “tunnel vision,” and that Kirel’s behavior suggested that it may be possible to encourage more secular Jews to increase their religious engagement.

“It shows that when we are amongst [sages], we want to be spiritually great, regardless of our normal aspirations,” he wrote. “Does anything happen from this encounter? Maybe yes, maybe no. But for Rav Rimon to have placed the pathway ahead for future interactions is more powerful than you can possibly imagine.”

Kirel, judging from her social media accounts, has yet to comment publicly on the meeting as of Wednesday morning. For his part, Rimon is surprised at how quickly the story has gone viral.

“It’s amazing to see how, within a second, the whole State of Israel knows,” he said in a brief stand-up interview with the Israeli right-leaning news site Arutz 7, explaining that he had previously declined more than 20 interview requests. “But I think we have a task to love the Jewish people and see good things… Suddenly you see that you’re connecting and good things emerge.”