Gried and the Space Between Us

The Space Between Us by Rabbi Janet Madden

[Ed. Note: Grief Awareness Day falls on August 30, 2017. — JB]

I recently officiated at the funeral of a man who founded a bank and a medical journal. He trained generations of physicians, funded and spearheaded disaster relief efforts and led medical missions to countries across the world in his lifelong efforts to increase medical knowledge and alleviate suffering. His family and many friends and colleagues gathered to honor his life. They derived comfort from knowing that he was able to pursue the work that he loved until the last months of his life, that his memory is a blessing to those who knew him, and that thousands of people were helped through his work. Grief at his death was balanced with the knowledge that he lived a life of passion and purpose.

Death can bring a new level of intimacy, new kinds of knowledge. When I sat with his family to plan his funeral, they told wonderful stories. I’d known that he was a child violin prodigy and I’d known about his life-long love of classical music, but I was surprised to learn that the Beatles’ “Within You Without You” was his favorite song.

Three days after the funeral, when I made a follow-up phone call to his widow, I found the family in crisis. The previous night, while the recently-buried man’s seven year old great-granddaughter slept in the next room, her mother, his only granddaughter, had hanged herself. Her body had been discovered only a couple of hours before.

Distraught family members asked if I had detected anything unusual about this young woman’s grief. I had not. None of them had perceived anything that suggested that the young woman was not grieving her grandfather’s death as what death professionals assess as “appropriate.” During the following days and the excruciating experiences of police and coroner and preparing for her funeral, the family asked the same questions over and over: how could they not have known that she was in such profound distress? What could they have done differently?

As a spiritual director, a grief counselor and a rabbi, I am well prepared to encounter death. But this is a different kind of death, and the grief that has leveled this family is, I think, unique to those whose loved ones suicide. This is complicated grief—grief knotted up with self-recrimination, confusion, shame, fear, and anger.

I guided the family through this second, tragic funeral as gently and compassionately as I know how to do. I’ve been in constant touch with them. I’ve made referrals to therapists who specialize in working with the families of those who have died by suicide. For her heartbroken parents, honor and comfort and the blessings of memory are distant concepts. I cannot fathom what her seven year old daughter, who woke up expecting to get ready for a day at summer camp and found her mother’s body, is experiencing, and what she will continue to endure throughout her life.

In the days since the young woman’s funeral, I’ve reread the lyrics of her grandfather’s favorite song. What at the time of his death seemed an expression of longing seems, in retrospect, a chilling premonition:

“We were talking about the space between us all

And the people who hide themselves behind a wall of illusion

Never glimpse the truth, then it’s far too late, when they pass away…And life flows on within you and without you…”

I am praying for this family. I am praying for all who wall themselves off, concealing their suffering and despair. I am praying for less space between us.

Rabbi Janet Madden

Rabbi Janet Madden

Rabbi Janet Madden, PhD was ordained by The Academy for Jewish Religion-California. She serves as the rabbi of Temple Havurat Emet and Providence Saint John’s Health Center and has been a student of the Gamliel Institute.

 [Ed. Note: Rabbi Janet Madden has agreed to submit a series of entries for Expired And Inspired – watch for them to appear fairly regularly, on a more or less monthly basis. — JB]




The Gamliel Institute will be offering course 2, Chevrah Kadisha: Taharah & Shmirah, online, afternoons/evenings, in the Fall semester, starting September 5th, 2017. This is the core course focusing on Taharah and Shmirah ritual, liturgy, practical matters, how-to, and what it means.


The course will meet online for twelve Tuesdays (the day will be adjusted in any weeks with Jewish holidays during this course).

There is a Free Preview/Overview of the course being offered on Monday August 14th at 5 pm PDST/8 pm EDST. You are welcome to join us to decide if this course is one in which you would like to enroll. Contact or for information on how to connect to the preview webinar.

There will be an orientation session on how to use the online platform and access the materials on Monday, September 4th, 2017, at 5 pm PDST/8 pm EDST online. Register or contact us for more information.

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Gamliel Students are invited to an informal online monthly session on the 3rd Wednedsays of most months. Each month, a different person will offer a short teaching or share some thoughts on a topic of interest to them, and those who are online will have a chance to respond, share their own stories and information, and build our Gamliel Institute community connections. This initiative is being headed up by Rena Boroditsky and Rick Light. You should receive email reminders monthly.

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If you have an idea for an entry you would like to submit to this blog, please be in touch. Email We are always interested in original unpublished materials that would be of interest to our readers, relating to the broad topics surrounding the continuum of Jewish preparation, planning, rituals, rites, customs, practices, activities, and celebrations approaching the end of life, at the time of death, during the funeral, in the grief and mourning process, and in comforting those dying and those mourning, as well as the actions and work of those who address those needs, including those serving in Bikkur Cholim, Caring Committees, the Chevrah Kadisha, as Shomrim, funeral providers, in funeral homes and mortuaries, and operators and maintainers of cemeteries.



SpaceIL: Israel’s race to the moon

One day in 2015, a small Israeli spacecraft will land on and reconnoiter the moon, joining the United States and former Soviet Union in the world’s most exclusive extraterrestrial club.

That vision is not fantasy or chauvinistic braggadocio, but the sober prediction of Israel’s most experienced engineers and space scientists.

According to the leaders of the SpaceIL (for Israel) project, the unmanned micro-spaceship will pack more instrumentation into a smaller and lighter capsule than ever achieved before.

During a visit to Los Angeles in mid-February, Yariv Bash, founder and CEO of SpaceIL, and Ronna Rubinstein, the chief of staff, outlined the genesis, scope and anticipated impact of the moon mission.

In late 2010, Bash heard about the Google Lunar X competition, which offered awards up to $30 million for the first team to land a robotic craft on the moon that would perform several complex missions. For one, the craft had to move 500 meters (1,640 feet) from its landing site to explore the moon’s surface – or send out a search vehicle to do so – and beam high-definition videos back to earth.

Bash, an electronics and computer engineer, said that SpaceIL will traverse the distance in one spectacular jump. SpaceIL, by the way, is only an interim name and when the time comes will be replaced with an official designation.

Initial names suggested by the project staff include Golda, for the former Israeli prime minister, Ramon, for Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, who perished in the Columbia shuttle disaster, and Hatikvah, Hebrew for “hope” and the title of the Israeli national anthem.

As soon as Bash absorbed the details of the Google competition, he posted one sentence on Facebook, asking, “Who is coming with me to the moon?” Among the first respondents was Rubinstein, a lawyer who now oversees the project’s organization, marketing and fundraising.

The total estimated cost for the project will be $30 million, of which $20 million has been raised so far, primarily from industry and private contributors. The Israeli government has allotted funds for 10 percent of the total cost, the maximum a government can put up under the contest rules.


Israeli President Shimon Peres visits SpaceIL. Photo courtesy SpaceIL

According to Israeli statistics, the government money will be well spent, since for every $1 invested in Israel’s 10 satellites and other high-tech research, $7 are returned in civilian and commercial applications.

The prize for the winning entry is $20 million, with another $10 million available in bonus prizes for accomplishing different aspects of the mission.

But it’s not the prize money that is driving the 11 full-time staff members and some 300 professionals who are volunteering their services evenings and weekends, after finishing their regular day jobs. In any case, any money won will go to schools to enhance math and technology programs.

“What counts for us is the impact the moon landing will have on Israelis and Jews around the world, to show what Israel is and what it can do,” Bash said.

Most important is to instill both pride and scientific curiosity in Israeli youngsters, Bash added. Together with the Weizmann Institute of Science, the project has launched a nationwide program of high school visits, which so far has involved 27,000 students.

Plans also call for lectures and exhibits in Diaspora communities, and Bash and Rubinstein will address a plenary session at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, DC during the first week of March.

Other key partners in the project are Israel Aerospace Industries, Tel Aviv University, Technion, Israeli Space Agency, Ramon Foundation and private companies like Rafael and Bezeq.

The Israeli spacecraft, whatever its final name, will compete against 24 other entries, of which 11 will be launched by various U.S. teams. Other competitors will come mainly from Europe and some from South American countries, but none from China, or, for that matter, Iran.

Early favorites are entries from the United States, Israel and Spain, Bash said.

Israel’s main strength, he noted, “lies in its nano-miniaturized technology, and SpaceIL will be the smallest craft ever sent into space.”

At liftoff, it will weigh 120 kilograms (264 pounds), but on landing, after burning off its fuel, it will weigh less than 40 kilograms (88 pounds). To get into orbit, SpaceIL will piggyback onto a commercial rocket, either American or Russian, at a cost of between $3 million to $5 million.

To Israelis watching the moon landing from 239,000 miles away, “it will be the most exciting reality show of all,” Bash hopes.

The impact on Israelis, especially young people, would be similar to that created in 1969 by astronaut Neil Armstrong as he descended from the Apollo spacecraft to the moon’s surface, proclaiming, “That’s one step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Israeli supporters of SpaceIL already have their own inspirational motto, taken from Theodor Herzl’s words as he prophesized the future creation of a Jewish state.

“Im Tirzu Ein Zo Agada” – “If you will it, it is no dream.”

For additional information, visit

Iran launches monkey into space, showing missile progress

Iran said on Monday it had launched a live monkey into space, seeking to show off missile systems that have alarmed the West because the technology could potentially be used to deliver a nuclear warhead.

The Defense Ministry announced the launch as world powers sought to agree a date and venue with Iran for resuming talks to resolve a standoff with the West over Tehran's contested nuclear program before it degenerates into a new Middle East war.

Efforts to nail down a new meeting have failed repeatedly and the powers fear Iran is exploiting the diplomatic vacuum to hone the means to produce nuclear weapons.

The Islamic Republic denies seeking weapons capability and says it seeks only electricity from its uranium enrichment so it can export more of its considerable oil wealth.

The powers have proposed new talks in February, a spokesman for the European Union's foreign policy chief said on Monday, hours after Russia urged all concerned to “stop behaving like children” and commit to a meeting.

Iran earlier in the day denied media reports of a major explosion at one of its most sensitive, underground enrichment plants, describing them as Western propaganda designed to influence the nuclear talks.

The Defense Ministry said the space launch of the monkey coincided “with the days of” the Prophet Mohammad's birthday, which was last week, but gave no date, according to a statement carried by the official news agency IRNA.

The launch was “another giant step” in space technology and biological research “which is the monopoly of a few countries”, the statement said.

The small grey monkey was pictured strapped into a padded seat and being loaded into the Kavoshgar rocket dubbed “Pishgam” (Pioneer) which state media said reached a height of more than 120 km (75 miles).

“This shipment returned safely to Earth with the anticipated speed along with the live organism,” Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi told the semi-official Fars news agency. “The launch of Kavoshgar and its retrieval is the first step towards sending humans into space in the next phase.”

There was no independent confirmation of the launch.


In Washington, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters she could not confirm whether Iran had successfully sent a monkey into space or conducted any launch at all, saying that if it had done so “it's a serious concern.”

Nuland said such a launch would violate U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929, whose text bars Iran from “any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology.”

The West worries that long-range ballistic technology used to propel Iranian satellites into orbit could be put to use dispatching nuclear warheads to a target.

Bruno Gruselle of France's Foundation for Strategic Research said that if the monkey launch report were true it would suggest a “quite significant” engineering feat by Iran.

“If you can show that you are able to protect a vehicle of this sort from re-entry, then you can probably protect a military warhead and make it survive the high temperatures and high pressures of re-entering,” Gruselle said.

The monkey launch would be similar to sending up a satellite weighing some 2,000 kg (4,400 pounds), he said. Success would suggest a capacity to deploy a surface-to-surface missile with a range of a few thousand kilometers (miles).

Michael Elleman, a missile expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies think-tank, said Iran had demonstrated “no new military or strategic capability” with the launch.

“Nonetheless, Iran has an ambitious space exploration program that includes the goal of placing a human in space in the next five or so years and a human-inhabited orbital capsule by the end of the decade,” Elleman said. “Today's achievement is one step toward the goal, albeit a small one.”

The Islamic Republic announced plans in 2011 to send a monkey into space, but that attempt was reported to have failed.

Nuclear-weapons capability requires three components – enough fissile material such as highly enriched uranium, a reliable weapons device miniaturized to fit into a missile cone, and an effective delivery system, such as a ballistic missile that can grow out of a space launch program.

Iran's efforts to develop and test ballistic missiles and build a space launch capability have contributed to Israeli calls for pre-emptive strikes on Iranian nuclear sites and billions of dollars of U.S. ballistic missile defense spending.


A spokesman for EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the powers had offered a February meeting to Iran, after a proposal to meet at the end of January was refused.

“Iran did not accept our offer to go to Istanbul on January 28 and 29 and so we have offered new dates in February. We have continued to offer dates since December. We are disappointed the Iranians have not yet agreed,” Michael Mann reporters.

He said Iranian negotiators had imposed new conditions for resuming talks and that EU powers were concerned this might be a stalling tactic. The last in a sporadic series of fruitless talks was held last June.

Iranian officials deny blame for the delays and say Western countries squandered opportunities for meetings by waiting until after the U.S. presidential election in November.

“We have always said that we are ready to negotiate until a result is reached and we have never broken off discussions,” IRNA quoted Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi as saying.

Salehi has suggested holding the next round in Cairo but said the powers wanted another venue. He also said that Sweden, Kazakhstan and Switzerland had offered to host the talks.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told a news conference: “We are ready to meet at any location as soon as possible. We believe the essence of our talks is far more important (than the site), and we hope that common sense will prevail and we will stop behaving like little children.”

Ashton is overseeing diplomatic contacts on behalf of the powers hoping to persuade Tehran to stop higher-grade uranium enrichment and accept stricter U.N. inspections in return for civilian nuclear cooperation and relief from U.N. sanctions.


Reuters has been unable to verify reports since Friday of an explosion early last week at the underground Fordow bunker that some Israeli and Western media said wrought heavy damage.

“The false news of an explosion at Fordow is Western propaganda ahead of nuclear negotiations to influence their process and outcome,” IRNA quoted deputy Iranian nuclear energy agency chief Saeed Shamseddin Bar Broudi as saying.

In late 2011 the plant at Fordow began producing uranium enriched to 20 percent fissile purity, well above the 3.5 percent level normally needed for nuclear power stations.

While such higher-grade enrichment remains nominally far below the 90 percent level required for an atomic bomb, nuclear proliferation experts say the 20 percent threshold represents the bulk of the time and effort involved in yielding weapons-grade material – if that were Iran's goal.

Tehran says its enhanced enrichment is to make fuel for a research reactor that produces isotopes for medical care.

Diplomats in Vienna, where the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency is based, said on Monday they had no knowledge of any incident at Fordow but were looking into the reports.

“I have heard and seen various reports but am unable to authenticate them,” a senior diplomat in Vienna told Reuters.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, which regularly inspects declared Iranian nuclear sites including Fordow, had no immediate comment on the issue.

Iran has accused Israel and the United States of trying to sabotage its nuclear program with cyber attacks and assassinations of its nuclear scientists. Washington has denied any role in the killings while Israel has declined to comment.

Additional reporting by William Maclean and Marcus George in Dubai, Justyna Pawlak in Brussels, Fredrik Dahl in Vienna; Writing by Mark Heinrich; Editing by Robin Pomeroy, Jon Hemming and Cynthia Osterman

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.”

Israeli mission to moon for Google contest demands appeal to local donors

Kfir Damari, Yonatan Winetraub and Yariv Bash were in Los Angeles last week in an effort to raise $10 million for the construction of a robot that they hope to send to the moon.

The three Israelis are hoping to win the Google Lunar X Prize, which will award $20 million to the first team that successfully launches a robot that lands on the moon, walks 1,500 feet and takes high-resolution photos and videos there, then transmits them back to Earth.

The Google Lunar X Prize — a partnership between the X Prize Foundation and Google — will also award $5 million to the second team to successfully complete the tasks, and $4 million will go to a team that completes other objectives, such as landing next to sites of old Apollo missions and detecting water. An additional $1 million will go to the team that “demonstrates the greatest attempts to promote diversity in the field of space exploration,” according to the contest site. Google is sponsoring the competition and providing the prize money.

Scientists from all over the world are participating in the contest and formed teams. The Israelis’ team name is named Team SpaceIL.

“Our mission in SpaceIL is to put the Israeli flag on the moon. To become the third country to ever soft land on the moon,” said Winetraub, chief technology officer of Team SpaceIL.

To win, the team must first raise the money on its own for the construction of their robots and fulfill all parts of the mission.  Ninety percent of each team’s funds must come from private contributors. The contest opened at the beginning of this year, and the objectives must be completed by 2015.

Team SpaceIL has raised approximately $1 million so far, most of it from Israeli supporters. It is the only Israeli team among the 29 participating.

If the team wins, the award money will go toward promoting youth education in science and technology in Israel. “We’re not in it for the money,” Winetraub said, “We’re in it to make a change. We’re in it to make history.”

Winetraub, 24, Damari, 28, and Bash, 30,  began working six months ago. The design for their robot — named “Sparrow” —  is complete and the three are in the midst of “building the hardware and testing it,” Winetraub said. They recently launched “an experimental rocket to test the landing sensors of the spaceship” and conducted another test involving engine pressure, he said.

They are working out of Tel Aviv University and in facilities belonging to Israeli technology companies, such as Israel Aerospace Industries, an aerospace and defense company. Approximately 80 volunteers — the majority of them Israeli — including space industry experts, researchers, educators and students, are helping with the project.

As of July 15, their last day in Los Angeles, the three had not secured any financial commitments here but had made connections that could lead to donations, Damari, chief operating officer of Team SpaceIL, said.

The Southern California-Israel Chamber of Commerce and Jumpstart, a local nonprofit dedicated to Jewish innovation, organized the team’s presentations in Los Angeles.

“We just want to be there first and take the $20 [million] prize,” Damari said. While many at the meeting wondered when SpaceIL hopes to launch, Damari declined to name specifics but remained confident, saying, “At least one day before the other teams.”

For more information, visit

Ice on Mars: Good for the Jews?

I have always been only slightly embarrassed by my avidity for reports of UFOs, ETs, new planetary systems, semantic transmissions across the galaxies and every
other kind of disruptive wow.

My embarrassment stems not from a reflexive belief in reports of bright lights flying low and fast over Stephenville, Texas or Chilliwack, British Columbia; I am as skeptical of tabloid headlines, and as cautious about the madness of crowds, as any other child of Voltaire or Mad Magazine.

No, what makes me sheepish about this stuff isn’t my intellectual credulousness; it’s my yearning for some indisputable event that will bust up our paradigms, some unruly discovery that will force us to remake from scratch our stories about who we are, where we come from and where we’re headed.

Now that the Phoenix Lander has confirmed the existence of ice on Mars, it’s likely to be only days before we learn whether the red planet’s soil and water contain the chemicals necessary for creating the kind of life we have on Earth. I’m rooting for carbon. Hell, I’m rooting for amino acids. I want it to be conceivable that Mars is a mere billion years behind Earth on the path to evolution, or maybe, sadly, a couple of billion years ahead of us on the road to extinction. And if not carbon, if they don’t find organic molecules, I’m rooting for some strange silicon-based information-rich strings in that Martian soup.

I want what’s found in that ice to make us say, Whoa! I want us to experience the kind of radical amazement that will require sending conventional cosmology to the repair shop. I want data that upend our accepted accounts of origins and evolution. I want scientific cover for the most boldly creative re-imaginings of the nature of life and of our own place in the great chain of being. I want to see the concepts of meaning and purpose up for grabs. I want new discoveries about stardust to make both ancient texts and current textbooks wholly inadequate for understanding the mysterium tremendum of the physical universe.

I want the discovery of extraterrestrial life — or “life” — to change everything. I don’t mean an eruption of “War of the Worlds”-style paranoia or of “Close Encounters”-style romanticism. I’m thinking instead of that 4-million-year-old black monolith that astronauts find deliberately buried on the moon in the 1968 movie “2001: A Space Odyssey,” an object identical to one in the movie’s opening “Dawn of Man” sequence. Forget the middle part of the movie, the voyage to Jupiter to examine a third monolith circling that planet, a trip sabotaged by the mutinous supercomputer HAL; think instead about how the movie ends.

There is an amazing light show, followed by actor Keir Dullea’s accelerated aging in a weird Louis XVI-furnished room, followed abruptly by Dullea’s transformation into the Star Child, a fetus in a glowing orb looking down from space on the Earth. If you’re of boomerish vintage, you know that plenty of stoned debates about the meaning of the movie’s strange conclusion followed its initial release (I know, I know: you didn’t inhale). The interpretation that worked best for me was that, basically, we humans don’t know nothing.

Is evolution the merely pointless, meaningless consequence of having world enough and time, or is our current state of consciousness just too embryonic to grasp the telos of the universe? If cosmologists are right about the Big Bang, what’s the difference between the essential preposterousness of that account of ontology, and the tsimtsum of the kabbalah? If a starry night or a baby’s finger can make you marvel at the sheer existence of anything at all, why should God be a less plausible account of materiality than quantum physics’ favorite theory: superstrings vibrating in 11 ineffable dimensions of space-time? If scientists believe, as they do, that invisible dark matter and unobservable dark energy make up the vast majority of the universe, then why should mystical accounts of an unseeable cosmos be any more inconceivable?

Jews, of course, don’t need monoliths, or Martian ice water, to set them off in these speculative directions. Jacob was renamed Israel because he wrestled with God, and his descendants still spend their days wrestling with the idea of God, no matter what the news might be from the Large Hadron Collider, the SETI Arecibo Observatory or the Phoenix Lander on Mars.

Nor do I underestimate the capacity of midrashic reasoning to assimilate even the most alien of singularities that scientists may turn up. Should microscopes examining a soil sample from the third planet’s northern arctic plane next week reveal a Martian version of Horton’s Whoville, there will no doubt be talmudic exegetes aplenty who will calmly conform such a disorderly discovery to the literal narrative of Genesis.

But for those who despair about the postmodern dead end that the history of consciousness has led to (and I include myself among them); for those too undisciplined to reliably integrate yoga, meditation, beginner’s mind or other spiritual technologies into their daily lives (yes, my hand is up); for those who can sleepwalk past a rose, forget to say the Modeh Ani or succumb to anti-mindful pathologies like boredom or killing time (guilty, guilty and guilty) — for us garden-variety broken vessels, a thrilling we-interrupt-this-program bulletin from the scientific magisterium is arguably not too childish to ache for.

Marty Kaplan is the Norman Lear Professor of Entertainment, Media and Society at the USC Annenberg School for Communication. His column will appear weekly in this space. He can be reached at

Milken students win first high school X PRIZE

Milken Community High School students joined the space race this week when two seniors won the first-ever X PRIZE competition for high schoolers. On Sunday, Michael Hakimi and Talia Nour-Omid took home the first Pete Conrad Spirit of Innovation Award for their concept of developing bio-monitoring sunglasses to keep space travelers healthy during civilian spaceflight. The Conrad Award, named for the third man to walk on the moon, is sponsored by the same foundation that awarded Burt Rutan and his SpaceShipOne $10 million in 2004 for becoming the first privately developed rocket to carry humans to space.

The X PRIZE foundation challenged students to “develop a new, innovative concept to benefit the personal spaceflight industry within the next 50 years.” Hakimi and Nour-Omid developed a business plan, graphic model and technical paper on goggles that would non-invasively monitor and project a space traveler’s vital signs during flight. While NASA astronauts generally are wired to numerous monitoring systems, such machinery is too weighty and expensive to be practical for commercial spaceflight.

Hakimi and Nour-Omid’s mock prototype and video display won the most votes from the tens of thousands of attendees at the Wirefly X PRIZE Cup and Holloman Air & Space Expo in New Mexico, where the team was among 10 finalists from across the country. The team takes home a $5,000 prize, and will have their design and trophy displayed at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. A traveling display and trophy will make stops at science centers across the world, and Hakimi and Nour-Omid will get a trophy to take home as well.

“It’s a big deal for the school, and we’re happy we can bring it back to the school and bring pride to the Jewish community in Los Angeles, to let everyone know that there are Jews out there who want to benefit society through space, or business or whatever means possible,” said Hakimi, a Bel Air resident who, like Nour-Omid, has been at Stephen S. Wise schools since the elementary grades.

The award was presented by Nancy Conrad, wife of the late Apollo astronaut Pete Conrad and creator of the prize, and Erik Lindbergh, great-grandson of Charles Lindbergh and designer and sculptor of the first prize trophy.

“For Talia and Michael to be recognized as the first winners of such a prestigious science and innovation award shows us that the work we are doing here may contribute to the changing landscape of our world,” Milken head of school Rennie Wrubel said.

Roger Kassebaum, director of Milken’s Mitchell Academy for Science and Technology, alerted his students to the opportunity in late August, and Hakimi and Nour-Omid, along with one other team, were able to submit their entry by the early September deadline.

The other team, sophomore Nathan Schloss and junior Jonathan Hekmat, developed a plan to allow people on earth to rent time on remote-controlled photographic equipment aboard the spacecraft. Schloss and Hekmat accompanied the team to New Mexico, and Hakimi says they were invaluable in setting up the technical display that attendees judged. Hekmat built the booth, while Schloss — who Kassebaum calls a computer genius — got the display working.

The goggles were hooked up to a temperature monitor and other monitors that simulated measurable vital signs, such as blood pressure, red blood cell count, blood sugar level and pulse. Those signs appeared on virtual-reality-type goggles, as well as on television monitors.

“I think these glasses might have a market, and if someone takes the time someone can make a profit off of these,” Hakimi said, noting they could be useful in space as well as on earth, such as when people leave hospitals.

Kassebaum and Hakimi are looking into legally protecting the idea, even though Hakimi says the necessary technology is in development now and probably won’t be marketable for about 15 years.

Kassebaum believes the students were ready to move so quickly because as members of the Mitchell Academy for Science and Technology, founded at Milken in 2003, they conduct a two-year research project with local universities and professors. Some students have had papers published and several have placed at other science competitions, such as the Intel Talent Search, a young epidemiologists competition and an Israeli physics competition.

Nour-Omid herself placed first in a regional civil engineering competition. Her winning design, a bridge constructed of one pound of unbroken Popsicle sticks and white glue, withstood pressure of 1,060 pounds.

“I try to remove any hurdles for anyone who has a special interest in science,” Kassebaum said.

Through the Mitchell Academy, Nour-Omid is working on cancer research with a lab at UC San Diego, and Hakimi has a paper about to be published on the economic impact of international terrorism on the Dow Jones.

The Conrad Award is the first X PRIZE for high schoolers.

Team Gad Astro from Northbrook, Ill., won the $2,500 second place award with their concept of a self-healing material that would rapidly fix any punctures, maintaining safety in space. Team Penguin Education from Friendswood, Tex., won the $1,500 third place award with their idea for a company that works with private and public schools to provide a high level of space education.

The X PRIZE Foundation is an educational nonprofit institute whose mission is to create radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity. In 2004, the foundation awarded Burt Rutan and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE for the world’s first private vehicle to travel to space twice in two weeks. The foundation has since expanded its mission beyond space exploration to offer new prizes for breakthroughs in the areas of life improvement, equity of opportunity and sustainability. Last year the X PRIZE Foundation announced the $10 million Archon X PRIZE for genomics, which will reward the first private effort to map 100 human genomes in 10 days. It is also developing a prize for a super-efficient, mass-producible car.

For more information, visit or

‘Tragic Loss’ documents Israeli astronaut’s ill-fated flight

Space escapades have been filling the news of late, from the tale of a jealous NASA astronaut stalking her rival to Virgin Galactic’s 99-minute trek into space for $200,000. But it is all a far cry from the devastating turn space travel took four years ago, when the space shuttle Columbia broke apart midair over Texas just minutes from landing in Florida.

One of the astronauts on that ill-fated mission was Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli in space. His journey on Columbia is documented in heart-breaking detail in “Columbia — The Tragic Loss,” an Israel-based TH production, which will be shown at UCLA Hillel on March 14.

A true Israeli hero, Ramon was the last of the eight pilots who bombed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981. As the last in the formation, he held the most perilous position during a mission in which up to three of the pilots were thought likely to die. He did not hesitate to take that assignment, nor did he hesitate to serve as a member of the Columbia crew.

“I’m a very cynical guy. I don’t believe in human heroes,” director Naftaly Gliksberg said in a phone interview from Israel.

Gliksberg has made documentaries about searing political topics, ranging from the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin to global anti-Semitism to an upcoming film about Israel-Iran relations in the 1990s. When the filmmaker first met Ramon in Houston before the flight, he joked to the astronaut, “You are a nonstory; you have no prostitute sister; you are from a very well-off family.”

A clean-cut, handsome mensch, Ramon lacked the stereotypical cockiness of most combat pilots. As another astronaut says in “Columbia — The Tragic Loss,” Ramon was much “more of an artist” than the other crewmembers. The 60-minute documentary, which was released in Israel in 2004, shows a serene man, whose poetic sensibilities are revealed through his diary entries, which were retrieved from the wreckage.

This is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the story, the way that the individual scraps of charred, torn paper survived the disintegration of the space shuttle and were reconstituted like missing pieces of a puzzle. A forensic expert finds the letters kof, dalet and yod, which seem to form a word, but she later discovers missing letters that spell out the word kadima.

This diary entry refers not to Ehud Olmert’s political party, which did not even exist in 2003 at the time of the Columbia disaster, but rather to the launch of the shuttle. Ramon wrote those words on the first day in flight. He also headlined another diary entry, “Kiddush,” and we see him speak to his family from space while holding a Torah rescued from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.

Like that relic from the Holocaust, the footage of Ramon fills us with melancholy. No one is massacred in this film, but there is a tremendous sense of loss, made all the more poignant because of the beauty of Ramon’s letters to his family.

At one point in the flight, which lasted about two weeks, he wrote in Hebrew of “a halo of green light emanating from the earth.” He also wrote about how the Earth appeared from space as one “borderless” sphere where we can all “try to live as one, in peace,” quoting from John Lennon’s song, “Imagine,” one of the last tunes the former Beatle wrote before he was gunned down in 1980 by Mark David Chapman.

The documentary provides lengthy criticism of NASA for mismanagement of the shuttle program and its failure to rescue the astronauts when it became evident early on that foam on the exterior of the space shuttle had eroded and become debris.

Gliksberg said that NASA “lost many points [in Israel] after the crash and after the movie” came out. “I can not see that Israeli people will support a new pilot” in space.

He added that he was “shocked” that “two or three weeks after” the tragedy, NASA had already introduced literature with the tagline, “Focus on the Future.”

“Where are they running to?” Gliksberg asked. “Hold on! Look at the past!”

As valid as is the criticism of NASA, the strongest parts of the film come from hearing Ramon’s diary entries read aloud to his family and to us. When we see the reaction of his family and when we listen to this uncommonly modest and loving man write to each of his children and his wife about his devotion to them, we cannot help but be moved.

It doesn’t matter much that the opening credits run against the backdrop of an amateurish rendering of the solar system, nor that the melodramatic score accompanying those opening credits seems recycled from any Hollywood thriller of the past few decades. What matters in the end is, as Lennon said, the power of imagination, the power to move beyond individual hatred and to see the one unifying globe before us.

Tough neighborhoods, hard times feed cycle of poverty

Dating by Committee

My guy Scott and I talked every night — until last night. He flew to San Francisco to hear a friend’s band play and I never heard from him. I left a message, he left me hanging. I know. He calls me, he calls me not, is nothing new. But it’s new to me. I’m too cute to be blown off. No seriously — way too cute.

And yet, I haven’t heard from him. I’ve been dating for more than a decade. I should know what this means, but I don’t. I’m Jewish. What do I know from a silent night? So I do what any woman in my sitch would do: I pick up the phone and call — don’t say him. Please, that’d be too logical. I call my girlfriends — ‘cuz women date by committee. When faced with a new crush, a dating dilemma or a relationship 911, we dial our friends and ask for advice.

“I’m gonna be honest, you’re in trouble,” said Amanda, who’s currently juggling two men. “It’s not good. It’s gotta be another girl.”

Scott and I have been linked for awhile. He’s a great guy, an honest guy; he’d never make a behind-my-back pass at another woman. So it’s gotta be — “you,” said Ann, who often goes three dates and out. “You’re probably pressuring him, he wants some space.”

Space? He spent the night in Northern California. That’s unofficially another state.

“If he can’t handle calling you, he can’t handle dating you,” pipes in newlywed Rachel. “What happens if you two get married and have kids? Your son is sick at school, and since Scott’s closer, you call and ask him to pick Morty up. But Scott doesn’t call you back and sick little Morty’s left waiting all alone on the playground. In the rain. Is that what you want?”

I know I don’t want to name my son Morty.

Men don’t do this. Men don’t overanalyze their relationships with their buddies. They don’t compare and contrast their girl’s behavior with that of their friend’s ex. They don’t do a play-by-play analysis of their last date. They don’t discuss. But girls always move in packs. We shop together, workout together, hit the ladies room together — in fact, we do everything in groups, except the one thing men wish we did in groups.

When it comes to relationships, girls are all about group think. We poll all our friends; we share all the evidence. We dissect voicemails men leave on friends’ phones. We decode text messages guys send to friends’ cells. We decipher e-mails that our friends forward in their entirety. My girls and I break down what a guy says, why he says it and why he didn’t say more. We analyze and scrutinize and interpret and debate. We’re like the great talmudic sages poring over a single phrase of the Torah. But hotter.

“Don’t worry. He’s just having fun with his friends. He’ll call when he gets back,” my college friend Kim said. “It’s not a big deal.” She’s right. She has to be right, because I so want her to be right.

See, women don’t really call friends for advice, we call for backup. In times of crisis and indecision, we call friend after friend after friend until we find one who agrees with us, someone who tells us what we’ve already told ourselves, someone who tells us what we want to hear.

It’s like the french fry phenomenon. When girls grab lunch we’re faced with the “Sophie’s Choice” of fruit or fries with that. We all want fries, we all get fruit. But if one girl admits she’s considering fries, there’s a frenzied chorus of “If you get them, I’ll get them.” Suddenly we’re all eating fries. And Macho Nachos. And we go to town on an Awesome Blossom. Girls are always looking for friends to second our motion. Or order seconds. Or dessert. We’re not looking for opinions, we’re looking for confirmation. We want to find someone who interprets a situation the same way we do.

All I want is someone to tell me that I shouldn’t be nervous. That I’m right to believe one unreturned phone call is just that — an unreturned call. Not a bad sign … or a meltdown … or the Love Boat sinking.

But while my friends might be “dating mayvens,” the truth is: No one knows a relationship like the two people who are in it. Sometimes, we shouldn’t let our clique convince us that all is good when it’s going down fast. Or buy in when they say a good relationship’s going bad. We should listen to our gut — or in this case, the message, which Scott left while I was overanalyzing with the girls.

“Hey Carin, it’s Scott. Sorry I didn’t call last night. We were out late. I didn’t want to wake you. But my flight lands around 5. Thought maybe we’d grab Thai food together. Miss you.”

Hmm. All in favor of me meeting Scott for dinner say “aye.” All against say … actually on this one, the only vote that counts is mine.

Freelance writer Carin Davis can be reached at


Zoning Snafus Keep New JCC Empty

Flashback to last fall, the opening ceremony of YESOD, a first-of-its-kind Jewish community center in the heart of St. Petersburg. This three-story modern stone-and-glass building — built by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) with funds raised primarily from North American federations and private donors — was pitched by the JDC as the new heart of the St. Petersburg community.

Now, four months after the impressive opening ceremony that brought together JDC leadership from New York and Israel, North American donors and local community leaders, the center is fully built — but stands empty.

The center is also the focus of criticism from some of its would-be occupants, who say that they haven’t been kept in the loop about planning the center from the beginning, that its opening has been delayed and that they are unsure about when they will be able to move in.

For its part, the JDC says that the delays are a result of bureaucratic snafus in obtaining zoning approval, and that it plans to move local Jewish organizations into the building later this month. JDC also wants to make the building economically self-sufficient; sources suggest that the project has stalled because JDC is also looking for commercial tenants to help achieve this goal.

YESOD, a bright and open space, is similar to state-of-the-art JCCs in cities across North America. It has space to house half a dozen Jewish organizations, a gym, a concert hall and a kosher cafe.

Although hailed as a landmark space uniting under one roof many Jewish organizations that have been scattered around the city, the center was received with mixed feelings by community leaders.

At the time, some criticized the JDC for organizing the center from afar and of not bringing the local bodies into the organizational process.

When the center held its ceremony, with Jewish federation guests from North America in attendance, its administration hoped that it would be ready for operation by the end of the year at the latest.

But the center is still not open.

“Everything has stalled and it is not certain when and how we are going to move,” said Leonid Kolton, director of St. Petersburg’s Hesed Avraham welfare center, which provides food and other services to Jewish elderly.

The JDC-run Hesed Avraham gave up some of its space in anticipation of the September move — space that it will need in its more active winter months. Hillel’s predicament is more serious: the student group’s lease is ending at the end of the month.

In an e-mail message, Jonathan Porath, JDC’s country director for Russia, said Hillel will move into the JCC before the end of the month.

But according to Leonid Smirnov, director of JDC in St. Petersburg, the finished building is still going through the lengthy process of receiving final approval from the zoning commission.

Local Jewish organizations should be able to move in at the end of January and “general activity” in the building should begin in the late winter or early spring, Porath said. Meanwhile, the amount that local groups will be expected to pay in rent is still unclear.

There are indications that the nonprofit tenants, St. Petersburg Jewish organizations, will need to pay rent for space in YESOD to cover its costly maintenance. Local Jewish leaders worry that the groups will be expected to pay commercial rates that some organizations cannot afford.

Smirnov says such criticisms and fears are unwarranted because most of the organizations relocating to YESOD are funded by the JDC and thus the JDC would just be paying itself.

“We are not interested in transferring money from one of our pockets to another,” he said.

Financial details are still being worked, out, JDC’s Porath said. According to Leonid Kolton, the overall situation puts a stain on JDC’s image and could even damage the structure of the Jewish community.

The JDC’s Smirnov says any large-scale operation spanning almost four years and involving the transfer of many organizations to a newly constructed building will inevitably run into difficulties and complications.

Added Joshua Berkman, a JDC spokesman: “JDC and its partners built YESOD to serve as a first-class facility where Jewish life in St. Petersburg can continue to flourish. Rest assured, we will do everything we can to make sure the organizations that are driving this historic Jewish rebirth can make YESOD their home.”

Russian City Gets New JCC

At a time when Jewish Community Centers in the West frequently struggle to survive in prosperous communities with lots of Jews, the small Russian port city of Arkhangelsk near the Arctic Circle is on the verge of getting a brand-new JCC. A local businessman had pledged to build and fund the facility for a Jewish community of fewer than 2,000 people.

The current JCC building is located on the edge of town — one floor above a blood transfusion clinic. It is tiny and in disrepair; building materials and a few wheelchairs dusty from neglect clutter a hallway connecting its five small rooms. This space houses a library that doubles as a kitchen, two offices and a meeting room.

Anatoly Obermeister, a local Jewish businessman, decided to improve the situation. “We need something that we can call our own and a place where we know we will always be able to stay,” he said.

Obermeister, president of the construction and development firm ASTRA, plans to offer the ground floor — about 6,000 square feet — of a new housing project in the center of town for use as a Jewish community center that could include a restaurant, clinic, school and other social services.

Nothing is left of the two synagogues that were built after the arrival of Jewish merchants and soldiers in the army during the 19th century. The wooden buildings fell into ruin and were scrapped after their closures during communist times.

Outside funding assistance for the new JCC would be welcomed for consideration, but Obermeister prefers that the community should not have to rely on outside sources to support itself — something that rarely happens in Jewish communities anywhere in Russia, where Jewish life still largely relies on the generosity of foreign donors.

In recent years, the Arkhangelsk Jewish community has seen an involvement of international Jewish organizations. Like almost everywhere across the region, Chabad, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for Israel have all assumed some role in this remote Russian Jewish community.

This involvement means an increase in Jewish social support and cultural life for Arkhangelsk’s Jews. However, the increase in Jewish identification also has led many local Jews to emigrate.

Since the Jewish Agency first opened a center here in 1998, the community has seen a heavy flow of Jews moving to Israel, said Lilya Martinova, coordinator for the St. Petersburg department of the Jewish Agency, which handles communities in northwestern Russia.

“Ten to 15 people make aliyah to Israel every year from the Arkhangelsk area,” said Igor Prober, director of the local Hesed Avraham welfare center.

For a community the size of Arkhangelsk, that is a considerable number.

The Arkhangelsk Jewish community is a branch of the Federation of Jewish Communities — a Chabad-sponsored organization. It, along with the JDC and local donors, helps fund various educational and social programs, including a tiny Sunday school of about 15 participants and a youth club.

Although the JDC-operated Hesed Avraham is thriving in its work of assisting the elderly, local Jewish leaders don’t think the future of the small Jewish community has much of a chance.

Yet, though Jewish activity should be declining, it may, in fact, be gaining momentum. Many Jews are leaving, but many are also coming out of the woodwork. Those with some Jewish heritage are finding their way to the evolving community and are becoming active participants.

“When they become interested in their identity, the half- and quarter-Jews become very active in Jewish cultural life — usually much more active than the full-blooded Jews,” Prober said.


Culling Your ‘Stuff’ Can Be Painful Task

My Aunt Naomi is overwhelmed.

Now 78, she was widowed three years ago. She lost her husband, but inherited his piles of files, cancelled checks and warranties for current and formerly owned equipment.

Aunt Naomi also has her own collections — beloved tchotchkes that are scattered throughout her expansive home.

Along with feeling overwhelmed, my aunt is very lonely. She wants to move to a retirement community to be around people, participate in activities and have someone else do the cooking (and dust her tchotchkes). However, this idea has Aunt Naomi distressed.

“How can I possibly move to someplace half the size of this house?” she asked. “I have too much stuff; I’ll never be able to figure out what to keep and what to get rid of.”

She’s not alone. A word search for “clutter” on returned 319 titles dealing with the problem of “too much stuff.”

My sister and I were fortunate when we moved our mother from her home to a smaller place. I don’t think I ever saw a stack of papers in mom’s house, and she would no more own a huge collection of tchotchkes than an assault rifle. She was a minimalist when it came to stuff.

But professional organizers exist for a reason, and these experts point to several challenges when downsizing to a smaller home:

  • The quantity of stuff and the daunting task of dealing with it all;
  • The feeling of urgency to get this task accomplished quickly;
  • A painful sense of loss.

This last issue seems especially important for older people.

“Getting old means facing a lot of losses,” my 87-year-old father said. “I’ve lost my independence, my physical strength and functioning and people I care about. It’s not easy.”

Moving from a familiar home and letting go of things owned for years can feel like an additional loss. It’s not just the loss of the objects that has an impact; it’s the connection with the past that these objects symbolize.

I recently came home to find that my cleaning lady had broken a precious, hand-painted bottle that my grandmother had given me when I was 11. Whenever I held this bottle, I felt the special bond I had with my grandmother. It was painful to look at this shattered reminder of her.

It did eventually occur to me that the bottle was, after all, just an object. And I didn’t really require it in order to remember my grandmother and our love.

But the fear of losing such objects and their associated memories is why many people hang on to things, said Peter Walsh, the professional organizer on The Learning Channel’s show, “Clean Sweep,” which helps ordinary people deal with their clutter.

I recently spoke with Walsh about the emotional and practical aspects of downsizing.

“People usually keep things because of fear, security and control,” Walsh said. “But it’s important that you understand that holding onto these objects doesn’t make you who you are, and doesn’t help you control the life you have; that’s really an illusion.

“The goal is to just keep the things that really give your life meaning — the items that bring you the most joy, which you have the best associations with. The objects you hang on to should be a reflection of you, rather than things you feel obligated to keep.”

Walsh said that one needs to acknowledge that trimming back is indeed an overwhelming task, and a very tough thing to do: “As my grandmother always said, ‘The only way to eat an elephant is one mouthful at a time.’ Go through your stuff gradually, maybe over many months’ time.”

To help with the process, he suggested having an organizing buddy. For some people, a friend or professional is a better option than a family member, he said, because of the emotions that get aroused.

On the other hand, if children can take the time, handle the predictable stress, be patient and understanding and help their parent stay calm, going through mementos and photos together can be a very meaningful experience. While my sister and I helped mom go through her photos, artwork and books, we reminisced, laughed a lot, cried a little and learned more about her family history.

It might have been even easier if we’d known some of Walsh’s tips for downsizing:

  • The 1-to-5 Ratio. Go through a collection of anything, and for every five you keep, get rid of one. Once you’ve done it once, go back and do it again — keep five items, get rid of one. You’ll cull down the collection gradually.
  • Reverse Coat Hanger Trick: We wear 20 percent of our clothes 80 percent of the time. Turn all coat hangers in your closet back to front. In the next six months, when you wear something, put it back in your closet the correct way. At the end of six months, you’ll see what you’ve worn and what you haven’t. Give away what you haven’t worn.
  • Two Garbage Bags Rule: Get two large trash bags — one for giving away, one for trash. Spend 20 minutes every day, once a week, putting three items in the giveaway bag, and one in the trash bag. Immediately have someone take the giveaway bag to your favorite thrift store. Put the other out in the trash.

As my grandmother knew, giving treasured things to family members feels good. Walsh points out that doing so (or giving objects to a local museum or historical society) can help ease the loss of letting go.

A lifestyle with regular sifting through stuff is ideal, Walsh said: “Clutter sucks the life out of your space. As you get older, you need to surround yourself with the essentials, rather than the excess. It’s safer, better for you health wise and easier to maintain. By having less stuff, you live a richer life.”

For more information, visit the National Association of Professional Organizers at

Ellie Kahn is a freelance writer, owner of Living Legacies Family and Organizational Histories and producer of “Meet Me At Brooklyn & Soto.” She can be reached at and


Jewish Weddings in Space

Joss Whedon’s quirky space Western, “Serenity,” features outlaws who act like Wild West gunslingers, an assassin who forces his victims to commit hara kiri, a telepath who inexplicably goes berserk, a Buddhist planet — and Jewish nuptials in space.

Based on Whedon’s short-lived 2002 TV series, “Firefly,” whose fan base helped spur the movie, “Serenity” revolves around the outlaws’ attempts to discover the telepath’s true identity after she beats up everyone in a bar.

Enter hacker broadcaster Mr. Universe (David Krumholtz), who plays the bar’s security tapes for the renegades — as well as a video of his wedding to a bimbo android. In one of the film’s funniest moments, she looks on robotically as Krumholtz (CBS’s “NUMB3RS”) ecstatically stomps on a glass at the end of the Jewish ceremony.

Mr. Universe is not the first member-of-the-tribe character the non-Jewish Whedon, has created, says Jewhoo Editor Nate Bloom; his titular Buffy the Vampire Slayer had a sidekick named Willow Rosenberg, among other multicultural pals.

Whedon said he created “Serenity,” which opens Friday, as a kind of “Wagon Train” in space. That’s about how Gene Roddenberry described his conceit for the original “Star Trek” series. But unlike “Trek” and many other sci-fi works, “Serenity” depicts real, rather than invented, human religions. So while a Jewish wedding in space may sound offbeat, hey, just think of it as the final frontier for the Diaspora, though don’t expect bubbe to approve of the intermarriage android thing.

Irvine Orthodox Plan to Erect Eruv

Ten years ago, Sean and Linda Samuels moved to Irvine, home to both a Chabad center and the Modern Orthodox Beth Jacob Congregation, along with other synagogues.

As the couple grew more observant and had children, they wanted the family to be part of their journey, which, of course, included weekly walks to shul.

But how? Irvine had no eruv, an unbroken boundary that uses existing electrical lines and fencing to encircle a synagogue and neighboring homes, which, according to rabbinic law, encloses a “private” space where observant Jews may carry objects on the Sabbath and other Jewish holidays. Without an eruv, people who need to carry, or push strollers or wheelchairs, are stranded at home.

Sean Samuels, a Beth Jacob board member, was instrumental in the quest to erect Irvine’s eruv, which should be operational by Rosh Hashanah. His initiative underscores Irvine’s reputation for welcoming people of many faiths and how the Orthodox community aims for inclusiveness.

At least eight others eruvs are in the works around Southern California, too, a reflection of observant communities taking hold outside urban areas. With an estimated 5-mile perimeter, Irvine’s boundary is a triangle bordered by the San Diego Freeway between the Michaelson and University exits, and University and Harvard avenues.

“It’s going to make Irvine this whole new playground,” said Samuels, who still needed to raise two-thirds of the eruv’s projected cost, $27,000.

“Having an eruv is a huge attraction,” he said, claiming property values will increase within its boundaries because of demand by observant Jews. Howard Shapiro, the project manager of a 50-mile perimeter eruv in West Los Angeles completed in January 2003, is now consulting on eight projects regionally. Most are on the scale of Irvine’s, he said.

“An eruv becomes another sign the community is coming of age,” said Rabbi Alan Kalinsky, the West Coast director of the Orthodox Union, whose members are Modern Orthodox synagogues. “It’s a very important sign that people don’t look singularly in Pico-Robertson and North Hollywood,” he said, where eruvs have existed for at least 20 years.

The number of observant Jews and their proportion among American Jewry appears to be increasing, as does the potential for municipal clashes over eruvs.

An eruv is a modern phenomenon, Kalinsky said, which was unnecessary in Europe’s walled cities and enclosed ghettos, but were erected beginning 40 years ago in the New York area. The highest-profile and longest-running eruv battle divided Jew against Jew and sparked charges of anti-Semitism in Tenafly, N.J. Although the resulting court case focused on the legality of allowing a religious use of public property, proponents say the eruv’s critics, including some Reform Jews, exploited the constitution to bar Orthodox Jews from their neighborhood. Opponents of the eruv said their opposition was not based in anti-Semitism, rather in the fact that Orthodox Jews often spoiled community endeavors, such as public schooling (they send their children to private school) and local politics (they don’t participate).

Orange County’s Jewish denominations lack the rancor seen in Tenafly and other Eastern cities, said Benjamin Hubbard, chair of Cal State Fullerton’s comparative religions department. “Here, there is not the same history of bad will; interreligious feuding is the nastiest kind,” he said.

Without dissent, the eruv was approved on the consent calendar by the Irvine City Council on July 13. Even so, the project took two years to complete because of the number of public and private entities involved, including supervision by an eruv authority, Rabbi Gershon Bess of the Rabbinic Council of California, whose members are Orthodox rabbis. Besides stringing fishing line between 58 Edison poles, Bess required installation of five new poles and the addition of four poles to existing fences.

Samuels said Irvine’s Chabad is considering expanding the eruv to encircle its location in Woodbridge. The Chabad’s Rabbi Alter Tanenbaum could not be reached for comment.

While in some areas of Los Angeles an eruv tended to buoy property values in a flat market, Ethyl Krawitz is uncertain Irvine will experience such a phenomenon. “It’s only appealing to the very observant; it means nothing to anyone else,” said Krawitz, a RE/MAX Realtor in Irvine whose clientele is 80 percent Jewish.

Irvine’s new Jewish Community Center already is a more potent magnet, she said. Krawitz sees the JCC’s location influence housing decisions of people relocating to the area, as well as Jews relocating internally from Anaheim, Orange and San Juan Capistrano.

“It’s a wonderful draw,” she said.

To maintain the eruv, the line’s integrity will be checked weekly. Once the eruv is up, results will be disseminated by e-mail and at For more information, e-mail

Your Letters

Columbia Tragedy

Your cover picture on Feb. 7 showing the breakup of the Columbiaaccompanied by the quote from Psalms 68 is the most beautiful, touching cover Ihave ever seen. It took my breath away. The scripture is a comfort for thetragedy and uplifting when thinking of the horrific daily attacks within Israel.

Vikki James, Sherman Oaks

Col. Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli in space, enabled me todo something I have not been able to do since the assassination of PrimeMinister Yitzchak Rabin in 1994 (“Israel Mourns First Astronaut,” Feb. 7).Ramon enabled me to dream. He made me, a holder of dual Israeli and American citizenship,believe that there was hope for my people and the carnivorous region of theworld in which they reside.

Daniel Inlender, Los Angeles

Returning to Earth with those seven astronauts, tucked intothe corner of that shuttle, was a little-publicized experiment created by fiveIsraeli teenagers from ORT Kiryat Motzkin School, students ranging in age from14 to 17. The experiment, which studied how zero gravity affected thedevelopment of crystals, was among six schools in Australia, China, Israel, Japan, Liechtenstein and the United States. As a board member of Women’s AmericanORT, a major supporter of ORT Israel, I found the news of the tragedyespecially hard.

Those students had journeyed to Florida to watch the shuttlecarrying their experiment rocket into orbit, starry-eyed with the dreams ofspace exploration and of a better world united in its endeavor for knowledge.

Yet, the Columbia tragedy cannot diminish the remarkableachievements of those ORT Israel students and the others whose ideas took offwith the shuttle.

Carolyn Gold, Chair Board of Trustees Los Angeles ORT Institute

Fighter for Justice

Kudos to Tom Tugend for his “Fighter for Justice,” (Jan.31), which captures in a balanced way to bright essence, as well as thesubtleties, of Arthur Stern — maverick and truth-teller. Rather than being anoutcast, Stern is often the conscience of our community — the Los Angelescommunity, in particular, and the American Jewish community, at large — and herightfully deserves to be celebrated.

Michael Bank, Berkeley

Land of SeaweedWraps

Israel desperately needs our support and tourism dollars, sosending a select group of women on a press tour organized by the IsraeliMinistry of Tourism makes infinite sense (“Land of Milk, Honey and SeaweedWraps,” Feb. 7). And what a tour: getting to meet and interview top Israeliwomen like ICU physician Dr. Sharon Einav, Reform Rabbi Na’amah Kelman andCapt. Sharon Feingold and going on day trips to biblical sites like Dvoriya inthe lower Galilee.

Why, then, does the author regale us only with tales ofdelectable dinners, decadent breakfasts, herbal tea, hot chocolate and 20 kindsof massage treatments? Surely you believe that your many readers — especiallythose of the female persuasion — care about more than meals and manicures.

Diane Saltzberg, Los Angeles

David Schwartz

I have known David Schwartz and his family for nearly 10years and was shocked by your slanderous article concerning his case (“ChildMolester Sent to Treatment Center,” Feb. 7). Knowing Schwartz, the chargesfiled against him are completely out of character. He is a very conscientiousperson who follows halacha carefully and would never harm a child. While injail, he spent his time learning and saying “Tehillim.” When I visited him injail, he did not complain of the hell he must have been going through, butasked me to visit several folks in the old age home that he was no longer ableto visit. He pleaded “no contest” rather than risk going to trial given thepresent climate concerning these kinds of cases. He maintains his innocence. Ipray to Hashem that the truth will come out and the person who committed thiscrime will be brought to justice.

Daniel Romm, Santa Monica

In “Child Molester Sent to Treatment Center,” Julie GruenbaumFax wrote, “At a hearing soon after his arrest, at which his bail was reducedfrom $1 million to $300,000, Schwartz’s supporters heckled the parents of thevictims, accusing them of harming another Jew.” I was present at that hearingfrom beginning to end and no such thing occurred. There was great concern forSchwartz and his welfare from his friends and family, and people were hesitantto believe that the man they knew would commit such a despicable act, but to myknowledge — as an eyewitness — no one displayed anything but concern for theparents and their children.

Lee Weissman, Irvine

The Jewish Journal stands behind its reporting of the event.

Interfaith Families

I heartily recommend that R. Hernandez, who wrote about thedifficulty for his Latino/Jewish family to feel accepted in some Jewishcongregations, explore Sholem Community (, a completelynonjudgmental Jewish community that has families of all “blends” (Letters, Feb.7). My own “Jewcana” (Jewish Chicana) daughter had her bat mitzvah with hervery proud Mexican-born, Catholic-raised dad right there at her side. He spokemovingly of how our Jewish community had made a place for him since his arrivalin the United States.

Mona Field, Eagle Rock

I was saddened to read the letter from R. Hernandezregarding the unwelcome feelings he and his family are experiencing from hiscongregation. Fortunately, there is hope! The congregation that my family hasbelonged to for more than 25 years, Temple Beth Hillel in Valley Village, hasalways had “open arms” toward interfaith families, especially those with youngchildren. The warm and friendly atmosphere lends itself to establishing manydifferent relationships. I’m sure there are other temples similar to TempleBeth Hillel in their outreach toward interfaith families. I know Hernandez andhis family will find what they are looking for.

Elaine Franklin, Burbank

Who Should Pay?

Our Jewish leadership was long-committed to encouraging theJewish rank and file to attend public schools (“Who Should Pay?” Jan. 31). Thiswas a viable alternative in the past, but our leadership has belatedly awakenedto the realization that a viable Judaism will now generally require a dayschool Jewish education. As a result of this belatedness, we are seeing afairly marked diminution of “Jewish continuity” today. The real question is,will our leaders shift community priorities rapidly enough to stem thiscontinued diminution?

Larry Selk, Los Angeles


Contrary to Rob Eshman’s misreading of history, neitherSaddam, nor the mullahs, nor Al Qaeda will give warning before using anynuclear weapons they acquire, nor will they put their return address on theirnukes (“Ich Bin ein Missourian,” Jan 31). They have learned something fromhistory, as we should. Saddam should be crushed now, as Hitler should have beencrushed in 1936.

Chaim Sisman, Los Angeles


The article detailing the current status of the JewishCommunity Centers of Greater Los Angeles (JCCGLA) highlights an organization intransition (“Redefining Its Role,” Jan 24). No matter whether you are asupporter of JCCGLA or not, there is certain agreement that JCCs are scramblingto define their role in the community.

With all the controversy and financial woes, JCCs have beenthe primary source of Jewish education for young children in Los Angeles.

JCCs should be expanding their demographic base: programmingshould embrace more religiously affiliated and unaffiliated Jews, Jews of mixedmarriages and teens.

JCCGLA can also develop an alumni support group that givesthose who are no longer affiliated an opportunity to express their support, andperhaps participate in new programs.

It is time for JCCGLA to prove their expertise insuccessfully running Los Angeles JCCs.

Bill Kabaker, Bay Cities

Thank you for including North Valley Jewish Community Center(NVJCC) in “Redefining Its Role,” and telling the community of JCCGLA’s currentstatus. We’ve made amazing progress in rebuilding our center and we are pleasedwith the acknowledgment of our accomplishment.

Elaine Fox, President NVJCC, Inc.


The article “C’mon Get Happy” (Feb. 7) incorrectly reportedthat the late Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach “took down the mechitza in his ownsynagogue on the Upper West Side in Manhattan.” There is, and always has been,a mechitza at the Carlebach shul. We regret any offense caused by the error.

Light From Sorrow

As an aerospace writer, I have watched 87 crews slip the
bonds of Earth’s gravity and rocket away into space.

The tension is tangible each time the laws of physics are
put to the test. On Saturday, out of the blue, we all learned a cruel lesson
about the speed, heat and friction that can prove fatal upon return to the
planet, as well. Being Jewish and having parents in Israel brought this crew
closer to me.

Jews have flown in space before, of course. David Wolf lived
on the Russian Mir space station; Jeff Hoffman took a menorah to space during
one of his shuttle missions; Judy Resnik died aboard the Challenger. But none
of these people flew with the Star of David on their arm patch. None spoke
Hebrew, asked for kosher food or chatted with the prime minister of Israel from

Ilan Ramon’s inclusion on the Columbia crew electrified
Jews, secular and religious alike. His death, mercifully not at the hands of
terrorists, snatched a hero away before he could be welcomed home.

During his blissful 16 days in space, Ramon commented about
how beautiful, how thin and how fragile the atmosphere appears from orbit. How
it needs to be cared for.

How ironic that what he spent his time in space studying was
ultimately responsible for his death.

I feel sadness for all the crew members, but thinking of
Ramon brings tears to my eyes.

I can relate to that star on his patch; I know why NASA
managers broke their self-imposed pledge not to discuss crew remains when an
Israeli journalist, intent and focused, pointedly asked about how Ramon’s
remains would be handled.

Jews have different laws, traditions and customs for
handling the deceased. NASA said these would be honored and they were working
with the Israeli government to ensure that.

Saturday was a day without hours, just one continuum that
ended with my 11-year-old son in my arms in my bed.

I forced myself not to think about Rona Ramon and her
fatherless children, ages 14, 12, 9 and 5. I tell my son that the astronauts
died doing what they wanted to do, what made them feel most alive.

“You mean they wanted to die?” he asked.

“No,” I said. “They wanted to live and they knew that what
they were doing was more dangerous than some jobs. More people die every day in
car crashes than flying in space,” I added.

We cannot control how and when we die. We can try to
postpone the inevitable with healthy diet, exercise, cancer screenings, seat
belts and motorcycle helmets, but largely our time on Earth is beyond our

What we can choose is how we live.

When I first started covering space in 1987, I had no idea
it would become a passion. The ideals, people and practices of space flight are
valuable lessons and examples for any endeavor and it speaks volumes of Ramon
that he found a home at NASA.

His being Jewish didn’t matter. His being Israeli didn’t
matter. What mattered was his ability to work as a member of a team. In return,
he was given the opportunity to look physically at the world as a global being.
The fact that he did not make it home does nothing to diminish what he
accomplished personally and on behalf of Israel.

My son said his “Shema” that night, then we pulled out a
prayer book and read the “Mourner’s Kaddish.” It didn’t feel complete, so I
read the translation in English. That, too, fell short. Then I found this by
Morris Adler:

“Out of love may come sorrow; but out of sorrow can come
light for others who dwell in darkness. And out of the light we bring to others
will come light for ourselves — the light of solace, of strength, of transfiguring.”

Article courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Â

Irene Brown is a Florida-based freelance writer, specializing in space, science and technology.

Where No Israeli Has Gone Before

For 25 years, Ilan Ramon strapped himself into fighter jets to help protect Israel. Soon, the air force colonel will have a chance to view his embattled homeland from a perspective never before seen by a sabra. Ramon, a 48-year-old father of four, is going into space.

"Every time you are the first, it’s meaningful," Ramon said during a preflight interview last week at the Johnson Space Center in Houston. "Probably the fact that I’m the son of a Holocaust survivor is even more symbolic [than usual]. I’m proof that even with all the hard times, we are going forward."

Ramon, who will be flying as a guest research scientist aboard the space shuttle Columbia, is scheduled to spend 16 days orbiting Earth with six career U.S. astronauts, including an Indian-born engineer and an African American payload commander.

Upon graduation from high school in Tel Aviv, Ramon was drafted into the military and attended flight training school. At 19, he was tapped to serve in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. The danger, however, did nothing to quench his desire to fly.

"I love to fly," said Ramon, who became part of Israel’s first F-16 fighter squadron and served two stints as deputy commander for F-16 and F-4 squadrons. He sandwiched four years of college at Tel Aviv University in between his command posts, earning a bachelor’s of science degree. He earned the rank of colonel in 1994 and took control of the Weapon Development and Acquisition Department — a post he held until 1997 when a colleague called and asked him if he’d like to become an astronaut.

At first, Ramon thought the offer was a joke.

"When I was a kid growing up, nobody in Israel ever dreamed — well, most people wouldn’t dream — of being an astronaut, because it wasn’t on the agenda. So I never thought I would have been an astronaut," he said.

"I would like to see my mission as my first one, not my last," he added. — Irene Brown, Jewish Telegraphic Agency