While the Columbia Accident Investigation Board prepares for its first public hearing, Ilan Ramon continues to be rememberd as a “rare Jewish light.”
The astronaut’s unique contribution to Jewish pride and Jewish unity, particularly at a time when Israel is experiencing profound suffering and alienation, was underscored at a memorial tribute Tuesday evening, marking thirty days since the Shuttle Columbia’s tragic end. “Ilan Ramon was not the first Jewish astronaut,” said Rabbi Shlomo Gestetner, Director of Chabad’s Mayanot Institute for Jewish Studies which organized the event. “But he was the first astronaut who made it his goal to promote Jewish identity and was seen by the entire world as a role model for Jews.”
Six hundred people were drawn to the Inbal Jerusalem Hotel where a distinguished line-up included Natan Sharansky, Israel’s Minister for Diaspora Affairs, Professor Joachim Joseph, owner of the Torah scroll that went to space with Ramon, and Thomas Rose, publisher of the Jerusalem Post.
The event began with an affecting cantorial rendition of Kel Maleh Rachamim—a prayer for the departed, by Sherwin Pomerantz, cantor of Israel’s Hanassi Synagogue, and was followed with a recital of Psalms for the security of Israel, its people and soldiers, by Rabbi Kasriel Shemtov of the Mayanot Institute. James Oppenheim, CEO of IQ Workshop which helped organize the evening, introduced the multi-media event featuring video clips of Ramon’s last days aboard the shuttle, when he looked upon Israel’s tiny outline from outer space.
Joachim Joseph, the Tel Aviv University professor who developed the Middle-East dust experiments performed aboard the Columbia shuttle, talked publicly for the first time of his personal connection to the Torah scroll which so captivated Ramon. A child inmate in Bergen-Belsen, Joseph described how his teacher, Rabbi Dasberg, who did not survive the Holocaust, arranged for his “Bar-Mitzvah” in the barracks. “We covered up the windows with blankets . . . I said the brachot and read the haftorah . . . They smuggled my mother in from the women’s camp and she stayed out in the cold, looking through the window,” trying to hear her son reading from the Torah.
It was this image, and the miniature Torah’s survival through the worst of times for the Jewish people, that compelled Ramon to ask Joseph if he would allow him to take the scroll to space with him. “Ramon wanted the Torah scroll to show the world how the Jewish people could rise from the deepest valley of death to the highest limits of achievement,” said Joseph.
Scharansky and Rose each made similar observations of Ramon’s Jewish pride, and its impact on Jewish unity. “Here was a Jew who reached the heights of success as a fighter pilot and as a scientist—he ‘made it,’” said Sharansky, “And yet he chose to publicly display his Judaism.” Rabbi Gestetner reiterated Ramon’s request to keep kosher aboard the Shuttle, and make Kiddush to honor the Shabbat while in outer space. “He did not pass an opportunity to express his love for Israel and the Jewish people,” said Gestetner. “This is Ilan’s subtle call to celebrities, movie producers, philanthropists, CEOs and each and every one of us in this room. It is a call for tangible acts of Jewishness to raise Jewish consciousness and awareness.”
The event, sponsored by Myra H. Kraft of Boston, ended with the song, “Shalom Lach Eretz Nehederet,” Shalom To You, Beautiful Land,” which Ramon had played as a wake-up call for his fellow astronauts on the last day aboard the shuttle.
“I still swell with pride at the very thought of him and what he accomplished for the Jewish people and Israel’s image during his space mission,” said one person who attended the tribute. “Ilan’s life and death has affected me more deeply and more constantly than any other incident.”
Clearly, Col. Ilan Ramon will live on in Jewish memory as an astronaut on a spiritual mission for the Jewish people.