The First Israeli Astronaut

We’ve pretty much stopped watching the news at home. I read the papers on-line, but we try to keep the daily TV images away from Shemer. And, honestly, we are feeling better for it.

Saturday nights on Israeli TV there is a news magazine. Often it has clips from news magazines around the world, including 60 minutes. I try to catch it before the weekly James Bond movie comes on. Last night there was a good story. It was good because it made us feel good as Israelis. With today’s security situation and economy, I’m finding it difficult to feel good so I thought I’d pass the feeling along to you.

The story was about the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon,  who is scheduled to be on the next Space Shuttle flight. It will be the 111th space shuttle mission, Columbia’s 28th launch, targeted for launch on July 19th. The statistics about the flight or the Israel Air Force Colonel’s CV (which can be found at <>) are not what touched me, although I am amazed. Ramon will be conducting an experiment designed by Israeli scientists. That’s kind of neat. However, from his actions and his words, his attitude is what impressed me.

Born in Israel in 1954, Ilan is representing more than just his country on this mission. “We’ll try to transfer to space the unity of the Jewish people, from Israel and the rest of the world,” he said in a previous interview. “We represent the entire Jewish people.” Col. Ramon is not particularly religious, but believes that as Israel’s first astronaut he is part of something greater than himself. “I feel I am representing all Jews and all Israelis,” he has said. As such, NASA has prepared special kosher food for him for space travel. There have been other Jewish Astronauts, but no one has asked for kosher food before. David Wolf was on the shuttle Endeavour, and Judith Resnick died in the Challenger explosion in 1986. Jeffrey Hoffman has had five space flight,  logged more than 1,211 hours and 21.5 million miles in space.(For more about keeping kosher in space see <>) Ramon has asked the rabbis about observing Shabbat in space. I remember a joke like that, but here it is – reality! (see rabbinic responses this has raised in an article at at <>)

But what really spoke was not his decision to observe traditions. It was what he chose to bring with him into space. Jeffrey Hoffman took a sevivon (dreidle) on a space shuttle mission. Ilan Ramon is the son of a German immigrant and a mother who survived the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland. He has asked a survivor’s organization for something to take into space with him, and received a mezuza made with barbed wire. From Yad VaShem, Israel’s national Holocaust museum, he also received something: A drawing by a 14 year old boy in Terezin, the concentration camp in Czechoslovakia through which almost my mother’s entire family passed through.

As I write this, I am looking at a picture which one of my mother’s cousins drew as a child in that same camp. Ramon received a picture drawn from the imagination of a young Jew in the confines of a concentration camp. It depicts how the artist imagined the Earth looked from space. Now this picture will now be travelling into the vastness of space by the son of survivors, an outstanding achiever who all the while remembers where he comes from and the people of which he is a part.

A few years ago, Col. Ramon said that he hopes that his presence in space will serve as a unifying thread for other Jews. “I will try to emphasize the unity of the Jewish people, Jewish communities within Israel and out of Israel,” he said. “I’m sure that they all will be proud that they have an Israeli out in space.”

And we are.

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