February 20, 2019

Remembering Ilan Ramon, 15 Years On

It’s hard to believe that Feb. 1 marks 15 years since the space shuttle Columbia, nearing the end of its mission, disintegrated upon re-entry into our atmosphere, killing all seven of its crew members, including the first Israeli astronaut, Ilan Ramon. Regarded in Israel as a national hero, Ramon is also fondly remembered by the Los Angeles Jewish community.

Like many of his generation in Israel, Ramon was more of a cultural Jew than religious, but he nevertheless understood the gravity of his role — as indicated by the symbolic items he took with him into space:

• A sketch, called “Moon Landscape,” drawn by 16-year-old Petr Ginz, who died in Auschwitz
• A microfiche of the Torah presented to him by the president of Israel
• A miniature Torah that survived Bergen Belsen, given to him by Professor Yehoyachin Yosef
• A dollar from the Lubavitcher Rebbe
• A barbed wire mezuzah from The 1939 Society, a Los Angeles organization of Holocaust survivors, their family and friends.

“I remember being just doubled over from the tragedy,” Jewish singer and musician Sam Glaser recalled of his reaction upon first hearing the news. “There was this feeling like Israel had arrived among the nations, achieving something that few nations had achieved. The word ‘Startup Nation’ still hadn’t been coined. Our technological prowess was just coming into the forefront. But we all knew that Israel, given the chance, was going to rise to a remarkable place. And so Ilan was a harbinger of what was to come in Israel, and continued a long line of Israeli heroes.”

“Ilan was a harbinger of what was to come in Israel, and continued a long line of Israeli heroes.” — Sam Glaser

“I remember it not just being a national tragedy but an international tragedy,” said Rabbi Michael Gotlieb of Kehillat Ma’arav in Santa Monica. The space shuttle program was the product of a concerted effort from all over the globe. The crew, too, reflected a mixed, multicultural ethnicity, an “embodiment of a new world order,” Gotlieb said.

Having just returned from a congregational trip to Israel, Gotlieb recalled his visit to Makhtesh Ramon in the Negev, a natural crater over which Ilan Ramon would often fly, and the location of the Ilan Ramon Museum and Memorial.

Columbia’s fatal accident was the second such calamity in NASA’s space shuttle program, eliciting a gamut of Jewish responses, including those who said space travel was simply too dangerous to risk human life, and others who claimed that Jews simply did not belong in space. The majority, however, saw space travel as a natural outgrowth of our human curiosity.

With the Trump administration talking about returning to space, and more specifically, returning to the moon, there’s more than a little excitement in California.

“The idea of science exploration is one of the most inspiring stories that human beings have ever generated, that we can learn about the universe and get nature to reveal its secrets,” said Rabbi Brad Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. “The shuttle was part of that. We’re occasionally reminded it’s a risky business, and people have to be willing to put their life on the line, which the crew and Ilan Ramon did. It’s important to remember the loss of all seven people who were killed in that incident, and to honor their courage, and to keep their vision alive by continuing to recognize how important scientific research remains.”

Gotlieb, too, is in favor of returning to space travel. “It’s a natural inclination for human beings to push the envelope,” he said.

Artson added that curiosity is not just a natural human drive, but “a gift of God, and that Nature can reveal its secrets through reason and experiment. For Jews, science is religious activity.”

As a science teacher and chazzan, serving at the nexus between science and Judaism, I couldn’t agree more.

Melanie Fine is the author of “A Midrash in Memory of Ilan Ramon.”