Scientists find evidence of recent water flows on Mars


Scientists analyzing data from a NASA spacecraft have found the first evidence that briny water flowed on the surface of Mars as recently as last summer, a paper published on Monday showed, raising the possibility that the planet could support life.

Although the source and the chemistry of the water is unknown, the discovery will change scientists' thinking about whether the planet that is most like Earth in the solar system could support present day microbial life.

“It suggests that it would be possible for life to be on Mars today,” John Grunsfeld, NASA's associate administration for science, told reporters.

“Mars is not the dry, arid planet that we thought of in the past. Under certain circumstances, liquid water has been found on Mars,” said Jim Green, the agency's director of planetary science.

The discovery was made when scientists developed a new technique to analyze chemical maps of the surface of Mars obtained by NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter spacecraft.

They found telltale fingerprints of salts that form only in the presence of water in narrow channels cut into cliff walls throughout the planet's equatorial region.

The slopes, first reported in 2011, appear during the warm summer months on Mars, then vanish when the temperatures drop. Scientists suspected the streaks, known as recurring slope lineae, or RSL, were cut by flowing water, but previously had been unable to make the measurements.

“I thought there was no hope,” Lujendra Ojha, a graduate student at Georgia Institute of Technology and lead author of a paper in this week's issue of the journal Nature Geoscience, told Reuters.

Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter makes its measurements during the hottest part of the Martian day, so scientists believed any traces of water, or fingerprints from hydrated minerals, would have evaporated.

Also, the chemical-sensing instrument on the orbiting spacecraft cannot home in on details as small as the narrow streaks, which typically are less than 16 feet (5 meters) wide.

But Ojha and colleagues created a computer program that could scrutinize individual pixels. That data was then correlated with high-resolution images of the streaks. Scientists concentrated on the widest streaks and came up with a 100 percent match between their locations and detections of hydrated salts.

The discovery “confirms that water is playing a role in these features,” said planetary scientist Alfred McEwen, with the University of Arizona. “We don't know that it's coming from the subsurface. It could come from the atmosphere.”

Whatever the water's source, the prospect of liquid water, even seasonally, raises the intriguing prospect that Mars, which is presumed to be a cold and dead planet, could support life today.

However, McEwen said much more information about the water's chemistry would be needed before scientists could make that assessment.

“It's not necessarily habitable just because it's water – at least to terrestrial organisms,” he said.

The evidence that there was water on the planet recently was the key finding in the study released on Monday. NASA's ongoing Mars rover Curiosity has already found evidence that Mars had all the ingredients and suitable habitats for microbial life to exist at some point in its past.

Scientists have been trying to figure out how it transformed from a warm, wet and likely Earth-like planet early in its history into the cold, dry desert that exists today.

Billions of years ago, Mars, which lacks a protective, global magnetic field, lost much of its atmosphere. Several initiatives are under way to determine how much of the planet's water was stripped away and how much remains locked in ice in underground reservoirs.

Local rabbis speak up about the drought


The Catholic pope is not the only one seeing moral messages in the issue of climate change and in valuing the Earth’s natural resources. Many rabbis are teaching restraint, particularly in California, where the drought, currently in its fourth year, is causing civic leaders to require residents and farmers to severely cut back on water use.  

“We need to restrain ourselves with dealing with adama [soil],” said Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia and a member of the Jewish Renewal movement, known for his work on Jewish environmental ethics. “In the story of the Garden of Eden, God says to the human race, ‘There’s an abundance here, eat it joyfully, just a little self restraint. Don’t eat from that tree.’ They don’t restrain themselves, and the abundance vanishes.”

It’s a concept also applied to the commandment of resting on Shabbat or practicing shmita, he explained, the halachic principle of letting the earth lie fallow every seven years.

For many rabbis from different congregations across Los Angeles, the California drought can be studied through a Jewish lens, and the Torah, as well as Jewish law and ethics, can offer the community guidance in how to respond.

Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of B’nai David-Judea Congregation described climate change — which he connected to the drought — as “an enormously religious issue,” as human action is at least partly accountable.

“We are failing perhaps the most basic human commandment we were given,” Kanefsky said, referring to that of taking care of the world. Climate change “is going to create serious hardship, whether for people who are living in areas that can no longer grow food, or living on islands overrun by seawater, or people who are subject to ferocious storms. We have the obligation to think about all of humanity as being part of our realm of responsibility, given that we are largely responsible for climate change.”

Allocation of water resources is a contentious issue in California, and the Gemara emphasizes the need for compromise by referring to situations in which people using a public area must yield to one another. Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, an Orthodox professor of Jewish law at Loyola Law School, referred to a midrash that teaches that when two camels are walking toward one another on the same road and there isn’t room for both, the camel that is not laden must retreat.

“We have different interest groups making claims on water, [and] not enough is available to go around,” Adlerstein said. “One of the things I imagine we’ll be able to do is try to come up with accommodations that produce the least amount of detrimental impact on the fewest people.”

Furthermore, according to Rabbi Elliot Dorff, a professor of philosophy at American Jewish University and the chairman of the Rabbinical Assembly’s Committee on Jewish Law and Standards, the Gemara presents a framework for how to prioritize in times of scarcity. He referenced a discussion of how a person’s own livelihood comes before anyone else’s, and how when one gives charity, the “poor of the city” preside over the poor who came to the city from elsewhere (Yoreh Deah 251:3).

“The tradition already had a sense that in times of scarcity, whether it be water or food or housing, there has to be a pecking order,” he said. “The general rule is that you have to take care of yourself first.”

Rabbi Adam Kligfeld of Temple Beth Am added that halachah urges people to prioritize the resources that are essential for one’s well-being. 

“Judaism would say you have to prioritize those usages of a limited resource that are required for sustaining life or health and not those for sustaining enjoyment or aesthetic pleasure,” he said. “Almonds and walnuts, which I love, I don’t need them to live. I happen to know they take an enormous amount of water to produce, per nut.”

Although droughts in the Torah appear as a form of divine punishment and God promises rain as a reward for keeping the commandments, it is difficult for some rabbis to think of the drought as a result of sin.

“We don’t fully understand God’s system of reward and punishment,” Rabbi Kalman Topp of Beth Jacob Congregation said. “Our focus needs to be on human initiative.”

Adlerstein explained that there is a type of divine providence associated with the droughts in the Torah because they occur in Israel — a land that, unlike California, has a covenant with God.

“There is the assumption in the Talmud that rain is something that God keeps tabs on and is related more to the spiritual conduct of the Jewish community,” he said. “When rain does not fall on Israel for an extended period of time, the reaction of the community is to turn to prayer and self-reflection. But I don’t think you’re going to find Jews in America saying, ‘Wow, this drought in California — it’s probably because of our sins.’ ”

However, most of the rabbis interviewed insisted that fasting and prayer in a time of drought can motivate people to take action.

“I don’t think that our fasting in and of itself is going to bring water — that’s magic, and that is a real ‘no-no’ in the Jewish tradition,” Dorff said. “If you’re going to fast, and there’s ample [halachic] precedent for that in the case of drought, then the purpose of the fast ought to be to express your fears about an ongoing drought, for water in the future and to motivate you to ensure a reliable source of water in the future.”

According to Adlerstein, conserving water solely to reap economic rewards is permissible. He explained that halachah offers incentives to help people fulfill the obligation to give tzedakah, and the Gemara describes how “the authorities could even seize their property before their very eyes, and take from them what they should have given” (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 248:1).

“I don’t see anything wrong with inducing people to act in ways that are healthy, even for the wrong reasons,” he said. “Even when it comes to things that are mitzvot, the Torah does allow for cajoling people to do the right thing by offering inducements.”

Droughts in the Torah often resulted in the displacement of people, illustrating the importance of individual responsibility to take care of the vulnerable.

“During the days of Elijah, the time of Achav, [and] in any situation of drought and in any crisis, that’s a time for every person to do what they can to improve the situation and help those in need,” Topp said. “Judaism emphasizes charity and kindness.”

For all the rabbis, caring about the drought reflects the high value that Judaism places on a human life, for which water is crucial.

“It is a Jewish value to take care of the planet and pay attention to the natural resources, particularly water,” said Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, which hosted a June 24 panel on water conservation. “There are so many references to water as life saving, from the story of Moses who is drawn from the water, from the story of Miriam, who is the source of wells that nurtured us as we wandered in the desert,” Geller said.

“The Jewish lens is to know that this is important and that behaviors need to change. To be responsible, to act personally, and to act collectively.” 

Pope calls for ‘action now’ to save planet, stem warming, help poor


Pope Francis demanded swift action on Thursday to save the planet from environmental ruin, urging world leaders to hear “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor” and plunging the Catholic Church into political controversy over climate change.

In the first papal document dedicated to the environment, he called for “decisive action, here and now,” to stop environmental degradation and global warming, squarely backing scientists who say it is mostly man-made.

In the encyclical “Laudato Si (Praise Be), On the Care of Our Common Home,” Francis advocated a change of lifestyle in rich countries steeped in a “throwaway” consumer culture and an end to an “obstructionist attitudes” that sometimes put profit before the common good.

He also took on big business, appearing to back “what consumer movements accomplish by boycotting certain products” in order to force companies to respect the environment.

The most controversial papal pronouncement in half a century

won broad praise from scientists, the United Nations and climate change activists, as well as the wrath of conservatives, including several U.S. Republican presidential candidates and leading lawmakers who have scolded Francis for delving into science and politics.

Republican Senator Jim Inhofe, chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement he is concerned the encyclical “will be used by global warming alarmists to advocate for policies that will equate to the largest, most regressive tax increase in our nation's history.”

At a news conference to present the encyclical, Cardinal Peter Turkson, a key collaborator on the landmark document, rejected pre-publication criticisms by some U.S. politicians that the pope should steer clear of political issues.

“Just because the pope is not a scientist does not mean he can't consult scientists,” he said, adding with a sly smile that journalists write about many things after consulting experts.

Latin America's first pope, who took his name from St. Francis of Assisi, the patron of ecology, said protecting the planet was a moral and ethical “imperative” for believers and non-believers alike that should supersede political and economic interests.

The clarion call to his flock of 1.2 billion members, the most controversial papal document since Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical Humanae Vitae upholding the Church's ban on contraception, could spur the world's Catholics to lobby policymakers on ecology issues and climate change.

POLITICAL MYOPIA

The Argentine-born pontiff, 78, decried a “myopia of power politics” he said had delayed far-sighted environmental action. “Many of those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms,” he wrote.

Because Francis has said he wants to influence this year's key U.N. climate summit in Paris, the encyclical further consolidated his role as a global diplomatic player following his mediation bringing Cuba and the United States to the negotiating table last year.

Francis dismissed the argument that “technology will solve all environmental problems (and that) global hunger and poverty will be resolved simply by market growth”.

Time was running out to save a planet “beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth” and which could see “an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems” this century.

“Once more, we need to reject a magical conception of the market, which would suggest that problems can be solved simply by an increase in the profits of companies or individuals.”

Francis also dismissed the effectiveness of carbon credits, saying they seemed to be a “quick and easy solution” but could lead “to a new form of speculation” that maintained excessive consumption and did not allow the “radical change” needed.

“Doomsday predictions can no longer be met with irony or disdain. We may well be leaving to coming generations debris, desolation and filth,” he wrote in the nearly 200-page work.

“The pace of consumption, waste and environmental change has so stretched the planet’s capacity that our contemporary lifestyle, unsustainable as it is, can only precipitate catastrophes, such as those which even now periodically occur in different areas of the world,” he said.

The release and a high-profile roll-out including Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research were timed to precede the pope's speeches on sustainable development in September to the United Nations and the U.S. Congress.

Schellnhuber said “the science is clear: global warming is driven by greenhouse gas emissions.”

SCIENTIFIC CONSENSUS

Francis, saying he was “drawing on the results of the best scientific research available,” called climate change “one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day” and said poor nations will suffer the most.

In several passages in the six-chapter encyclical, Francis confronted head on both climate change doubters and those who say it is not man-made. He said there was a “very solid scientific consensus” that the planet was warming and that people had to “combat this warming or at least the human causes which produce or aggravate it” because greenhouse gases were “released mainly as a result of human activity.”

Francis called for policies to “drastically” reduce polluting gases, saying technology based on fossil fuels “needs to be progressively replaced without delay” and sources of renewable energy developed.

In passages certain to upset conservatives, he called for a “legal framework” to defend the environment.

A major theme was the disparity of wealth.

“We fail to see that some are mired in desperate and degrading poverty, with no way out, while others have not the faintest idea of what to do with their possessions, vainly showing off their supposed superiority and leaving behind them so much waste which, if it were the case everywhere, would destroy the planet,” Francis said.

Last year was Earth’s hottest on record, U.S. scientists say


Last year was Earth's hottest on record in a new sign that people are disrupting the climate by burning fossil fuels that release greenhouse gases to the air, two U.S. government agencies said on Friday.

The White House said the studies, by the U.S. space agency NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, showed a need for action to reduce rising world emissions of greenhouse gases.

The data showed that the 10 warmest years since records began in the 19th century had occurred since 1997. Last year was warmest, ahead of 2010, 2005 and 1998. The records undercut arguments by climate skeptics that global warming has stopped in recent years.

The scientists said the record temperatures were spread around the globe, including most of Europe stretching into northern Africa, the western United States, far eastern Russia into western Alaska, parts of interior South America, parts of eastern and western coastal Australia and elsewhere.

“While the ranking of individual years can be affected by chaotic weather patterns, the long-term trends are attributable to drivers of climate change that right now are dominated by human emissions of greenhouse gases,” said Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA's Goddard Institute of Space Studies in New York.

“The data shows quite clearly that it's the greenhouse gas trends that are responsible for the majority of the trends,” he told reporters. Emissions were still rising “so we may anticipate further record highs in the years to come.”

U.N. studies show there already are more extremes of heat and rainfall and project more disruptions to food and water supplies and rising sea levels as ice melts from Greenland to Antarctica.

PARIS MEETING IN DECEMBER

In December, about 200 governments will meet in Paris to try to reach a deal to limit global warming, shifting to renewable energies. China and the United States, the top emitters of greenhouse gases, say they are cooperating more to achieve an U.N. accord.

“We can't wait to take action,” a White House official said in a statement.

Opponents of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that would take Canadian crude across the United States said the new data made it all the more pressing to prevent the construction of the pipeline.

But U.S. Senator James Inhofe, the Senate's leading climate change skeptic, said the difference between 2014 and 2010 was so insignificant as to prove there was no need for more stringent EPA regulations.

“Human activity is clearly not the driving cause for global warming, and is not leading our planet to the brink of devastation that many alarmists want us to believe,” he said.

In Britain, Energy and Climate Change Secretary Ed Davey also said the records were “yet more evidence that we need to act urgently to prevent dangerous climate change.”

The U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says it is at least 95 percent probable that human activities, rather than natural variations in the climate caused by factors such as sunspots, are to blame for rising temperatures.

Rowan Sutton, director of Climate Research at the National Centre for Atmospheric Science at the University of Reading, said a single year did not mean much because it might be a freak hot year.

“But the fact that now 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have occurred since the turn of the century shows just how clear global warming has become,” he said.

Even so, temperatures since 1998, a warm year, have not risen as fast as they did in the 1980s or 1990s. The IPCC has described it as a hiatus in warming.

NO EL NINO FACTOR

Since 1880, Earth's average surface temperature has warmed by about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit (0.8 degrees Celsius), NASA said. The NASA and NOAA analyses showed that the world's oceans all warmed last year, offsetting somewhat more moderate temperatures over land.

The average temperature across global land and ocean surfaces was 1.24 degrees F (0.69 degrees C) above the 20th century average, NOAA said. Last year's warmth surpasses the previous records of 2005 and 2010 by 0.07 degree F (0.04 degree C), the scientists said.

The scientists noted that the record was set in a year that did not have the weather pattern known as El Niño that can heat up the atmosphere and has been a factor in many past record-setting years.

The United Nations says it is already clear that promises for emissions curbs at the Paris summit will be too weak to get on track for a U.N. goal of limiting global warming to 3.6 degrees F (2 degrees C) above pre-industrial times.

The day the Earth stood stupid


Say goodnight, Earthlings.

That message — plus the slimmest of shots at an eleventh-hour reprieve — was announced to the people of the world last week. 

When this happens in science fiction — 1951’s “The Day the Earth Stood Still” is the classic — the planet pays attention.  The flying saucer lands; an alien, in this case played by Michael Rennie, emerges; a final warning is issued:  Stop it.  If you don’t, you’re doomed.

Back then, the “it” was violence — the Cold War, and the threat of nuclear midnight.  Last week, it was climate change — greenhouse gases, and the promise of ecological extinction.

“Heat-Trapping Gas Passes Milestone, Raising Fears,” ran the headline on the front page lead What does it take to grab us by the eyeballs?

It’s not that people who know our planet’s hair is on fire aren’t trying to get our attention. The “>National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's “>scientist after “>drought will spread and – in the “>The Climate Reality Project’s website features 18 disturbing but entertaining videos about the price of carbon and our addiction to fossil fuels.  ““>350.org “>The Years of Living Dangerously,” Showtime’s climate change documentary series now being shot, has producers who know a little something about how to capture audiences: James Cameron, Jerry Weintraub and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Those efforts use media to engage an informed, activist public.  Could such a citizenry make change?  There’s plenty we can do in our personal lives to reduce our carbon footprint.  Local and state policies in conservation, transportation, building design and urban planning can also curb greenhouse gas emissions.  But without federal leadership like killing the Keystone XL pipeline and putting a tax on carbon, and without global commitments with teeth to enforce them, it’s hard to imagine a path back from the brink. 

In the U.S., the same dysfunctions preventing anything else useful from happening — the Senate filibuster, the gerrymandered House, the corrupt campaign finance system — also hold climate change mitigation hostage.  So does denial.  And though some denial can be attributed to hoax propaganda funded by the fossil fuel industry, some comes from an infantile strain in the American psyche that should not be mistaken for religious freedom. 

Last week, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) gave a floor “>Reagan was a big fan of “The Day the Earth Stood Still,” and as president he often referred to it.  When he first met Mikhail Gorbachev in 1985, he speculated that the threat of an alien invasion might get the Americans and the Soviets to cooperate.  If Michael Rennie’s ““>Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the martyk@jewishjournal.com.

UPDATE: Meteorite explodes over Russia, more than 1,000 injured


A meteorite streaked across the sky and exploded over central Russia on Friday, raining fireballs over a vast area and causing a shock wave that smashed windows, damaged buildings and injured 1,200 people.

People heading to work in Chelyabinsk heard what sounded like an explosion, saw a bright light and then felt the shock wave, according to a Reuters correspondent in the industrial city 1,500 km (950 miles) east of Moscow.

The fireball, travelling at a speed of 30 km (19 miles) per second according to Russian space agency Roscosmos, had blazed across the horizon, leaving a long white trail that could be seen as far as 200 km (125 miles) away.

Car alarms went off, thousands of windows shattered and mobile phone networks were disrupted. The Interior Ministry said the meteorite explosion, a very rare spectacle, also unleashed a sonic boom.

“I was driving to work, it was quite dark, but it suddenly became as bright as if it were day,” said Viktor Prokofiev, 36, a resident of Yekaterinburg in the Urals Mountains.

“I felt like I was blinded by headlights.”

The meteorite, which weighed about 10 tonnes and may have been made of iron, entered Earth's atmosphere and broke apart 30-50 km (19-31 miles) above ground, according to Russia's Academy of Sciences.

The energy released when it entered the Earth's atmosphere was equivalent to a few kilotonnes, the academy said, the power of a small atomic weapon exploding.

No deaths were reported but the Emergencies Ministry said 20,000 rescue and clean-up workers were sent to the region after President Vladimir Putin told Emergencies Minister Vladimir Puchkov to ease the disruption and help the victims.

The Interior Ministry said about 1,200 people had been injured, at least 200 of them children, and most from shards of glass.

WINDOWS BLOWN OUT

The early-morning blast and ensuing shock wave blew out windows on Chelyabinsk's central Lenin Street, buckled some shop fronts, rattled apartment buildings in the city centre and blew out windows.

“I was standing at a bus stop, seeing off my girlfriend,” said Andrei, a local resident who did not give his second name. “Then there was a flash and I saw a trail of smoke across the sky and felt a shock wave that smashed windows.”

A wall and roof were badly damaged at the Chelyabinsk Zinc Plant but a spokeswoman said no environmental threat resulted.

One piece of meteorite broke through the ice the Cherbakul Lake near Chelyabinsk, leaving a hole several metres (yards) wide.

The region has long been a hub for the Russian military and defence industry, and it is often the site where artillery shells are decommissioned.

A local Emergencies Ministry official said meteorite storms were extremely rare and Friday's incident may have been connected with an asteroid the size of an Olympic swimming pool that was due to pass Earth.

But an astronomer at Russia's Academy of Sciences, Sergei Barabanov, cast doubt on that report and the European Space Agency said its experts had confirmed there was no link.

The regional governor in Chelyabinsk said the meteorite shower had caused more than $30 million in damage, and the Emergencies Ministry said 300 buildings had been affected.

Despite warnings not to approach any unidentified objects, some enterprising locals were hoping to cash in.

“Selling meteorite that fell on Chelyabinsk!” one prospective seller, Vladimir, said on a popular Russian auction website. He attached a picture of a black piece of stone that on Friday afternoon was priced at 1,488 roubles ($49.46).

RARE EVENT

The Emergencies Ministry described Friday's events as a “meteorite shower in the form of fireballs” and said background radiation levels were normal. It urged residents not to panic.

The first footage was shot by car dashboard video cameras and soon went viral.

Russians also quickly made fun at the event on the Internet. A photo montage showed Putin riding the meteorite and Nationalist politician Vladimir Zhirinovksy said in jest it was really a new weapon being tested by the United States.

Experts drew comparisons with an incident in 1908, when a meteorite is thought to have devastated an area of more than 2,000 sq km (1,250 miles) in Siberia, breaking windows as far as 200 km (125 miles) from the point of impact.

Simon Goodwin, an astrophysics expert from Britain's University of Sheffield, said that roughly 1,000 to 10,000 tonnes of material rained down from space towards the earth every day, but most burned up in the atmosphere.

“While events this big are rare, an impact that could cause damage and death could happen every century or so. Unfortunately there is absolutely nothing we can do to stop impacts.”

The meteorite struck just as an asteroid known as 2012 DA14, about 46 m in diameter, was due to pass closer to Earth – at a distance of 27,520 km (17,100 miles) – than any other known object of its size since scientists began routinely monitoring asteroids about 15 years ago. ($1 = 30.0877 Russian roubles)

Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska in Moscow; Writing by Timothy Heritage and Thomas Grove; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Michael Roddy

Israel ready to train new astronaut


Ten years after the death of Ilan Ramon on the space shuttle Columbia, Israel is ready to train a new astronaut.

Israel Space Agency chairman Yitzhak Ben Israel said Wednesday that the agency is in talks with international space agencies to place an Israeli astronaut on the International Space Agency in coming years. It could take several years to select and train an Israeli astronaut.

Ben Israel made the announcement at the eighth annual International Space Conference, being held this week in Herzliya.

Ramon, Israel's first astronaut, died in February 2003, when Columbia exploded over Texas as it reentered the Earth's atmosphere for landing.

Space Shuttle Columbia: From Shoah to the stars


On Feb. 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated as it re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere, tragically taking the lives of all seven astronauts on board. Among those who never returned home were Israeli Air Force Col. Ilan Ramon — Israel’s first and only astronaut — and a miniature Torah dating back to the Holocaust.

Ramon, the son of Holocaust survivors, had taken the scroll that was given to him by Joachim “Yoya” Joseph, an Israeli scientist and survivor of the Holocaust. Joseph had received the scroll as a boy in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp from the rabbi who performed his secret bar mitzvah. To Ramon, the cherished item represented “the ability of the Jewish people to survive anything.” 

Now, thanks to journalist-turned-film director Daniel Cohen, this extraordinary story is told in the television documentary “Space Shuttle Columbia: Mission of Hope,” premiering at 9 p.m., Jan. 31, on PBS in conjunction with the 10th anniversary of the disaster and NASA’s annual Day of Remembrance.

“The thread of the film is a Holocaust story and the story of Ilan Ramon, but ultimately it’s a universal story,” Cohen said during a phone interview. “The challenge of the story, the entire time I was making the film, was to make it a universal story. And that became the story of the Columbia crew, who they were and how diverse they were in their backgrounds. And ultimately, one of the key messages in the film is that magnificence of diversity and what it brings to all of us.”

Cohen, a self-admitted “space nut,” was raised by his Conservative mother and Reform Jewish father. As a boy, he spent many hours playing out his space fantasies in the family living room pretending that a big blue chair was his Mercury space capsule. 

“I must’ve launched off into space hundreds of times in that chair,” Cohen said.

As an adult, Cohen landed in Washington, D.C., where he worked as a broadcast journalist for more than 30 years. During that time he earned multiple Emmys for outstanding broadcast journalism and six Telly Awards for his first responder and safety advocate work. Additionally, he received honors from the Associated Press and other organizations for his medical and science reporting and investigative work.

Wanting to expand his career to include directing documentaries, Cohen found a story in 2003 that seemed perfect. 

“I was looking for a documentary to make, and when the Columbia disaster happened I was very tuned into the accident because of my fascination with space exploration,” Cohen said. “And about two weeks after the accident, I read an article about this little Torah scroll that Ilan Ramon carried with him into space, and I thought, ‘What an interesting new way to tell a Holocaust story to a new generation.’

“I had a friend at the time who was very high up at NASA, and I asked him if he was aware of this scroll that Ramon carried into space,” Cohen continued. “He said, ‘Yes, what about it?’ I told him that I would like to meet this scientist, Dr. Joseph, who had the Torah scroll and was working with Ramon.” 

Within minutes Cohen was on the line with Joseph in Tel Aviv. 

“I told him I was interested in making a documentary about Ramon and the scroll, and he said to me the one line that I would hear over and over again during the 10 years that it took to bring this film to television — and that was: ‘Anything for my dear friend, Ilan Ramon. You tell me what to do.’ And that’s how it started.”  

Cohen and Joseph worked closely for years on the story. The scientist did not live to see the project completed — he died in 2008 — but he is seen throughout the film. 

Cohen was determined that his film not be one that simply circulated through the usual film-festival route. With his background in broadcast journalism, he wanted to have it shown on television so that it would reach a wide audience. 

With no track record as a documentary filmmaker, Cohen knew that he would need a big name attached to his project in order to get it financed and produced. He eventually brought the project to Christopher Cowen, who at the time was working at actor/producer Tom Hanks’ production company, Playtone. Cohen said Cowen loved the project and remembers the latter telling him, “This has Tom [Hanks] written all over it. It’s about two of Hanks’ passions — space travel and World War II.” 

Hanks and Cowen signed on to the project, and when Cowen moved over to Herzog & Co., taking the project with him, Hanks remained attached. Still, even with a team in place that included executive producers Hanks, Gary Goetzman and Mark Herzog, along with Cowen as producer, the director still faced the challenge of how to tell a story about the Holocaust and the space shuttle tragedy in an uplifting way.  

The answer came when Cohen received a phone call from another Holocaust survivor from Bergen-Belsen who also had a Torah scroll. He told Cohen that his scroll was going to be carried into space by Canadian astronaut Steve MacLean as a tribute to Ramon. Cohen responded, “Thank you. You just ended my film for me!”

Although Cohen laments that he never had the opportunity to meet Ramon, he feels, in a way, that he has through all of the people he interviewed for the film, including the astronaut’s widow, Rona. 

“Here is a guy who, no matter what happened to him, always rose to the moment,” Cohen said. “Whether it was the Iraqi mission, where he was a young fighter pilot, or whatever happened to him during his air force career, that’s the kind of guy he was. That’s one of the reasons he carried the scroll with him. Because he wanted to demonstrate to the world who he was and where he came from.”  

Perhaps Ramon’s mission within the mission is best summed up in the film by former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who concludes, “There’s something deeper than what we think in being what we are and him being what he was and what he represented. It’s not only that a human being can carry a scroll — but the scroll can carry the human being.”

Opinion: The end is nigh. Seriously.


In countless cartoons, there’s a guy in a robe and long beard who’s walking around carrying a sign saying The End Is Nigh. The joke is that he’s ridiculous – some loony who takes the Book of Revelation literally.  But what if the joke’s on us?

The June 6 issue of the leading scientific journal Nature contains a ” target=”_hplink”>already happened.  It will be irreversible, “a planetary-scale critical transition” whose consequences may include mass extinctions and “drastic changes in species distributions, abundances and diversity.” 

Its consequences could be as catastrophic as an asteroid hitting the Earth.  But unlike asteroids, volcanoes, plate tectonics and other suspected culprits in the prior Great Extinctions, the cause of this tipping point is people.

There are 7 billion of us now; there will be over 9 billion when today’s toddlers start having kids.  To support that population, we’ve cleared more than 40 percent of the planet’s surface for agriculture and urban development, and that will hit 50 percent by 2050.  Add to that the fossil fuels we’re burning, and the resulting carbon dioxide that we’re pumping into the atmosphere is acidifying the oceans, melting the ice caps, messing with the climate and heading us toward “widespread social unrest, economic instability and the loss of human life.”

So what do we do with news that bad?

The right’s response has been denial – a ” target=”_hplink”>bad news head on.  What if the specter of a global tipping point, an irreversible environmental catastrophe, grabbed our attention as powerfully as the prospect of extinction grips the people of Earth in space invasion movies?  We’d do everything we could to stop it, right?

In the U.S., the scale of action required to prevent such a state shift in our planet’s biosphere can only be attempted by our political system. 

Uh-oh.

Special interests own Congress.  The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision holding corporations to be people, together with the demise of campaign finance laws, puts plutocrats first.  Big media, while raking in billions from political ads, is holding audiences riveted to spectacles instead of holding candidates accountable for lying.  If you think a re-elected Barack Obama could get a decent energy policy passed by the next Congress, you haven’t been counting the Koch brothers’ money or ” target=”_hplink”>Norman Lear professor of entertainment, media and society at the martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Jerusalem, Tel Aviv on new Google project


Jerusalem’s Old City and parts of historic Tel Aviv are featured in Google’s new “World Wonders Project,” although Jerusalem is not included under the Israel category.

The project allows visitors to take a virtual tour of the 132 historic and heritage sites from 18 countries and is presented in six languages including English and Hebrew.

The Asia category includes Israel, Japan and Jerusalem. “White City of Tel Aviv” is under the Israel category. Jerusalem, in its own category separate from Israel, is made up of views of the Old City, including the Western Wall.

The project was launched May 31 and uses Street View, 3D modeling and other Google technologies. Partners in the project include UNESCO and the World Monuments Fund.

Population boom? Why 7 billion isn’t enough


I may be a rabbi who lives and works in the heart of New York City—in fact, I was just voted one of Gotham’s “hippest”—but believe it or not, I occasionally catch a glimpse of an endangered species.

I’m talking, of course, about young married couples. They seem to hibernate all year, coming to the synagogue only on the High Holidays. That’s OK. I’m still thrilled to meet them.

This year, I got an interesting reaction after I said something that pretty much guarantees I won’t see these couples again for another year: “So …  isn’t it time?”

The wife blushed. The husband cringed. One of them blurted out their well-rehearsed response: “Rabbi, we’d love to have kids. Someday. But right now, we’re not ready.”

That scenario plays itself out all over the world every day. An entire generation of Jewish grandmothers-in-waiting is praying impatiently for their own little bundle of joy (or two or three) to kvell over. But their daughters and sons aren’t cooperating. According to a 2002 study by the Jewish Agency, “the number of Jews in the world is declining at an average of 50,000 per year.”

And it’s not just a Jewish problem. Throughout the Western world, men and women in their prime reproductive years are doing everything but reproducing.

If you’ve been following the news of late, you may be questioning my wisdom or sanity. It was reported that on Sunday night, the Philippines welcomed the world’s 7 billionth person, Danica May Camacho. In fact, despite being officially awarded the title by the United Nations, other countries also are claiming that they have a newborn who is the 7th billion person on the planet. Still, the United Nations even had flown in the world’s 6 billionth person, Lorrize Mae Guevarra (now 12 years old) to be there to wish a mazel tov.

As the result of this milestone, we’ve been hearing a lot this week about the “population boom.” However, if you crunch the numbers, a slightly different picture emerges: that “population boom” is more like a “health boom.” Medical advances are improving longevity, which is what is really driving up the world’s population numbers.

In reality, the problem isn’t overpopulation but sub-replacement fertility and aging populations that ultimately will lead to massive population declines. In places like Japan and Western Europe, low fertility has increased the incidence of voluntary childlessness, which in turn will have a far-reaching impact on economic and social policy. Nations such as Greece already are struggling to support their graying citizens—a message that few in that country seem willing to hear.

China’s extreme sub-replacement fertility rate is creating a hitherto unknown family structure: children with no siblings. That is, family trees with no branches.

The United States is clinging to a healthy replenishment rate just above 2.1 children, but only due to high immigration rates, which are now petering off, given the economic downturn.

As a rabbi, I can’t help but recall that the Bible’s first instruction to humankind, in Genesis 1:28, is “Be fruitful and multiply. Fill the land and subdue it.” Note that the emphasis is not just on having a family but a large one.

Some might ask, why was it necessary to command people to do something that not only guarantees the continued survival of the human race, but which comes so naturally? I’m beginning to think that the long-ago command “to be fruitful and multiply” actually was meant for us modern people thousands of years in the future—a kind of message in a (baby) bottle that would wash ashore in our post-modern, post-parenting era. Whether or not we will heed that message remains to be seen.

Rabbi Simcha Weinstein is a best-selling author who recently was voted “New York’s Hippest Rabbi” by PBS-Ch. 13. His forthcoming book on demography is titled “The Case for Having Children: Why parenthood makes you (and your world) healthy, wealthy and wise.”

Balancing resources and lives — being Jewish and ‘green’


I entered the classroom, where more than 30 Jewish adults who had been studying together for the past semester buzzed in conversation. I began class by asking my students a simple question: “Are you concerned about what is happening to our environment and worried about what the future will be for your children and grandchildren?”

Without a single exception, everyone in the room said yes.

Read any newspaper today and you will find stories about the problems that are being created by global warming: water, air and soil pollution; destruction of ecosystems and rain forests, and, of course, our dependency on oil. However, human abuse of our earth is not a new issue or one that has developed solely as a result of technology. Sadly, man’s instinct to destroy the natural world dates back to biblical times.

It seems that we have always needed guidance in how to treat the earth. In Deuteronomy 20:19-20, we are commanded not to cut down fruit-bearing trees during a siege against a city, although we can cut down nonfruit-bearing ones for building materials. This prohibition on destroying (bal tashchit) teaches us two very important lessons: restraint in how we act upon the earth and the value of humility.

What better time could there be to limit the human tendency to act without concern for the earth than in a time of conquest, when we are easily carried away by our own sense of power? Even more significant is the idea of our responsibility for and to future generations. Bal tashchit prohibits us from destroying a source of food that will one day feed the people who survived the battles that are being fought.

Judaism has a lot to say about how to create a balance between using the resources we have and abusing or destroying them. The rabbis and sages greatly expanded the concept of bal tashchit to prohibit the wasting of everyday goods and materials, as well as clogging of wells, release of toxic fumes and chemicals and killing of animals for convenience.

The basic principle they established bears repeating today: While man may use the earth for his needs, he may not use any resource needlessly. But how do we weigh our needs against our excesses? Who decides what is a legitimate use and what is wasteful?

In attempting to answer these questions, we need to look at the purposes for which man was created in the first place. Our first answers are found in Genesis 1: 28, where we learn that man was put on the earth to “fill it and conquer/subdue it,” and in Genesis 2:15, where our Divine purpose is “to work it [the Garden of Eden] and to guard it.” Our marching orders seem clear, or do they?

From the beginning of time, we have had to face the challenge of balancing our obligation to use the environment for our own needs with the responsibility to preserve and protect it. Jewish tradition is rich with ideas, rituals and holidays that enable us to develop a sound Jewish environmental ethic keeping this tension in mind.

Every day, each time we eat, the Jewish menu of kashrut reminds us that the world is ours to use, but that there are limitations on how we can use it. The concept of restricted foods is incrementally introduced in the Torah — first, when God permits Adam to eat only fruits and vegetables and then, later in the Torah, when the Israelites are given a long list of animals, birds and fish that they are no longer permitted to eat — reinforcing the idea that we do not have unrestricted use of the world in which we live.

Jews have a special weekly reminder to help us balance our need to control the environment with caring for it. Shabbat is the original Earth Day: It celebrates the majesty of creation and tells us in no uncertain terms that the earth is for us to enjoy, but that we have a weekly obligation to let it rest, just as we are commanded to rest. On Shabbat, we relinquish our own work in order to pause and reflect on the wonder of creation, rather than to dominate and control it.

The concept of the sabbatical year, or shmita in Hebrew, also helps us develop a continuing environmental awareness by requiring us to refrain from agricultural activity, such as planting, plowing and harvesting during the seventh year of the seven-year agricultural cycle mandated in the Torah. Once again, we are required to limit our use of the earth, which is on loan to us, in order to fulfill our role as stewards.

Recently, much has been written about the concept of ecokashrut, which is the practice of using environmentally friendly, ecocertified kosher foods, goods and materials as a way of sanctifying individual use and consumption. Ecokashrut looks for Jewish solutions to contemporary environmental problems in traditional texts and ideas like tikkun olam (repairing the world), chesed (compassion) and tzedek (justice). It encompasses more than just the food we eat, but the clothing we wear, the cars we drive and the products we use to sustain us.

A Web site sponsored by the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life (

VIDEO: A Sacred Duty — A Jewish response to threats to our environment


From the Internet Archive:

A Major Documentary on Current Environmental Threats and How Jewish Teachings Can Be Applied in Responding to These Threats.

Produced by Emmy-Award-winning producer, director, writer, and cinematographer Lionel Friedberg, A SACRED DUTY will take its place alongside Al Gore’s AN INCONVENIENT TRUTH and Leonardo di Caprio’s THE ELEVENTH HOUR as another powerful expose of the dangers of global warming. However, it goes beyond the latter two films, by showing how religious responses can make a major difference and why a shift toward plant-based diets is an essential part of efforts to reduce global climate change and other environmental threats.

This item is part of the collection: Open Source Movies

Producer: Lionel Friedberg and the JVNA
Audio/Visual: sound, color
Language: English (hebrew Subtitles)
Keywords: Global warming, ecology, enviroment, Judaism, Vegetarianism, Israel, Tora,

Kids Page


The Red Valley

Have you seen the Red Planet lately? A few weeks ago, Mars came closer to Earth than it has in thousands of years. Usually, Mars is 50 million miles away. Although it is now receding, it is still about 34 million away. That means that it’s 16 million miles closer than it has been in thousands of years!

On Mars, there is a valley called Ma’adim Vallis. Scientists think it was created by water that gouged out a lake. The name for the valley was taken from the Hebrew word for Mars: Ma’adim, which comes from another Hebrew word, adom (red).

Mitzvah Makers

Please tell us, in no more than 50 words, about a mitzvah that you or someone else did that you think would make a great story and be a great example to others.

Send your essay, including a photo of the mitzvah-doer,
to The Jewish Journal, 3580 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 1510, Los Angeles, CA 90010.
If you do not have a photo, you can e-mail the essay to kids@jewishjournal.com . Deadline is Monday, Oct. 20, 2003.

You could win a $10 gift certificate.

Seeing Stars

F.W. Herschel, a Jewish astronomer who lived from 1738 to 1822 is one of the six astronomers represented on the Astronomers Monument at The Griffith Observatory in Los Angeles. Herschel discovered the planet Uranus.

The Reality of Desert Life


Draped in a deep, earthen-red shukah, adorned with circles of brightly beaded necklaces and head-to-toe with body paint made from ochre and sheep fat, the Masai warrior keeps a silent vigil in the midst of the relentless equatorial heat of East Africa. His life is a mission from his god, Ngai, to protect and care for his herd of cattle and the earth itself.

The Masai live in small, tightly circled villages smack in the midst of the African plains, exposed and vulnerable to the lions, cheetahs, jackals and other predatory animals that roam that forbidding landscape at will. The village has perhaps 50 small huts; the straw woven by the women and then covered in dung and mud by the men. It is built in a tight circle to serve as safe haven for both humans and cattle during the long and threatening nights.

A few days ago, my wife Didi and I were standing in the midst of the Masai in just such a village in Kenya at the foot of Mt. Kilimanjaro. As we have our Sinai, the Masai have Kilimanjaro — for it is this towering mountain, rising some 19,000 feet above the plain that the Masai believe to be the home of the gods and the source of the commandments for their way of life. The Masai feed entirely off the blood, milk and meat of their cattle; they believe that god forbids any cultivation of the earth. They say the earth is sacred and no one should be so irreverent as to scar it with tools or deface its natural beauty.

As usual, Didi ended up surrounded by children who laughed and giggled in amazement as she entertained them with songs made up of their tongue-twisting names from their native language. It was at the same moment heartwarming and heart-wrenching.

Heartwarming, for perhaps the most beautiful music in the world is that universal sound of children’s laughter that accompanied their eyes wide with wonder as she gave them their own pictures taken with her pocket Polaroid.

Heart-wrenching to feel helpless knowing that even now in the 21st century, these children with smiling faces oblivious to the constant crawling flies and dirt, were facing lives filled with preventable childhood death and diseases and an average life expectancy in the mid-40’s.

They live today as they have lived for hundreds of years, and as seminomads have lived throughout Africa and the Middle East for thousands of years. And I recognized faint echoes of our own ancient Biblical past in their lives.

In Metzorah, the Torah speaks of what the priests and people are supposed to do when a disease is discovered in one of the houses in the camp. The procedures that are outlined in this week’s portion are the result of a natural fear of contamination from one person to another, and one house to the next. In Leviticus 14:45, we are told that when there is a serious disease infecting an entire house, we simply demolish the house itself stone-by-stone, and then rebuild it from scratch.

It startled me into recognizing the reality of desert life when the Masai told me that whenever they discover a serious disease in their village, they destroy the village, move to a new location and simply build a new village from scratch.

Spending a week with the Masai was like going back to an ancient world. It reminded me that we have more in common with the primitive terrors of our ancient ancestors than we are eager to admit. Even in the 21st century, we still share the same dreams and needs and fears that have driven human beings for all time. So when the Masai warriors held their hand out for mine, I took it, and smiled.


Rabbi Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D. is senior rabbi of Kehillat Israel, the Reconstructionist congregation of Pacific Palisades.

+