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Jewish Journal

Moments of Silence

by Rob Eshman

February 6, 2003 | 7:00 pm

There were a lot of moments of silence this week.

There was the one early Saturday morning when you first heard the news of the space shuttle Columbia's disappearance. Whoever told you, whomever you told, there was that instant of disbelief, that moment when words failed you.

As the reality hit, the white noise of wall-to-wall news coverage filled our cars and living rooms. But off the air, the rest of us had few words to say.

The tragedy, which would have been awful under any circumstances, stung Jews especially deeply. Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli in space, was also the first Israeli to die in space.

As rabbis and their congregants filtered into synagogues for Shabbat services Saturday morning, they entered shaking their heads, ready to cry, unable to express the sadness and loss. Synagogue turned out to be a perfect place to be.

A full-to-bursting schedule of planned events this past weekend brought Jews together, where they could, among other things, be silent together.

Saturday night, just hours after the tragedy, Israeli Consul General Yuval Rotem and his wife, Miri, were honored by Pressman Academy Jewish day school at a ballroom dinner dance. It was a celebration singed with sorrow.

Organizers, said Rabbi Joel Rembaum, debated whether to cancel the music and dancing. They decided that, in the end, strength came from both mourning and celebrating. Rotem delivered a powerful eulogy for Ramon (see page 9), whose picture stood propped up on the stage above a row of yahrtzeit candles. There was a moment of silence, then, as the dancing began, Pini Cohen's band shared the stage with the smiling image of the astronaut.

Wherever Jews gathered this week, the rituals were similar. Sorrow, then business. Sorrow, then celebration. The image of Ramon -- his promise, his courage, his achievement -- orbited each gathering.

At the annual meeting of the Jewish Historical Society of Southern California, held Sunday at the Japanese American National Museum, the hundred or so people gathered to honor Jerry Freedman-Habush began their program with a moment of silence.

At a dinner Sunday evening for the University of Judaism honoring Ruth Zeigler, UJ President Robert Wexler called for a moment silence.

Some 500 people attended the memorial service for the astronauts on Sunday at Adat Shalom synagogue in West Los Angeles. "It would have been a tragedy even if Ilan Ramon wasn't on board," Rabbi Michael Resnick said. "We would have done something anyway. At difficult times we come together, we reach out for strength, for optimism."

Resnick reminded the gathering of Ramon's view from the Columbia. "There are no lines, there is just the world," he said. "It becomes so clear that from space that we are one."

At the home of Jean and Jerry Friedman, an elegant dinner reception Sunday evening for some 200 major donors to Jewish education from around the country began with a moment of silence. And at a high-spirited Mitzvah Day organized by The Jewish Federation/South Bay Council, 500 people stopped to remember the astronauts.

One simple reason Ramon's death provoked such deep reaction is that many people here knew him, and even more people felt as if they did.

Ramon's death broke the hearts of students at Shalhevet School, who had sent Ramon a letter on Jan. 13, while he was still in orbit, thanking him for his achievement. "May you reach a clearer understanding of the universe through your unique vantage point on God's creation," they wrote.

Rabbi Mark Blazer of Temple Beth Ami in Santa Clarita was a close friend who celebrated this past Thanksgiving with the astronaut and his family. At the end of the meal, Blazer had wished Ramon, "Nesiya tova," Hebrew for bon voyage. "I realized this was the first time I had ever said these words to someone going up into space," Blazer wrote in The Daily News.

"It's just terrible," said William Elperin of the "1939" Club. "I couldn't get him out of my mind all weekend. We were at his home in Houston and spent time with his wife and four children. He was such a wonderful man."

The "1939" Club honored Ramon in October 2000, presenting him with a barbed-wire mezuzah symbolizing the Holocaust. The son and grandson of Holocaust survivors took the mezuzah into space with him. 

Ramon's picture adorned the walls of many Jewish school classrooms. At Pressman Academy, educators added a prayer for peace and other readings in memorial of the astronauts, and students of all ages wrote e-mails to the Ramon family to express their concern and thoughts. 

It was exactly a year ago that Kol Tikvah religious school started a letter-writing campaign to Ramon, sending him letters of support, following his progress and awaiting his visit after landing. Instead, students wrote condolence cards.

At Universal Studios theme park, where Ramon went with his family as a guest of honor during the park's 2002 Chanukah celebration, employees remembered how Ramon had been scheduled to sign autographs for a half-hour. As the line grew, he refused to leave or even accept lunch until everyone had a signed poster, nearly three and a half hours later. Ramon vowed to return after his flight so he could experience the park with his children.

Sarit Finkelstein-Boim had just seen Ramon when he served as one of the Executive Honorary Committee members for her installation as president of B'nai B'rith Shalom Unit. Her husband, Nahum, an aeronautical engineer, was a friend of Ramon from the air force.

Carol Koransky remembered seeing Ramon at the General Assembly of Jewish federations in Philadelphia this past December. Ramon sat good-naturedly through a program that ran on until midnight. When finally introduced to a much-dwindled audience, he came to the podium and said, "Good morning." Then, Koransky said, he proceeded to astonish the audience with a heartfelt explanation of what his trip would mean to him as an astronaut and as a Jew.

For so many, Ramon was the poster boy for the ideal Jewish identity. Two recently released surveys of American Jewish opinion found that 66 percent of Jews believe anti-Semitism is the "greatest threat" to Jewish life, 73 percent of Jews said caring about Israel was important. Half said being Jewish is "very important" to them, while 41 percent said "being part of the Jewish people" defined their identity.

Here was Ilan Ramon to fill all those roles at once -- a warrior, an Israeli, a proudly self-identified Jew who took a Torah and kiddush cup into space, a real-life mensch and a textbook hero.

The imagery of the catastrophe and its aftermath could have been a chapter from mythology. The heroes soaring through the heavens, their firey deaths as they sought to bring the secrets of the cosmos back to those of us on Earth, the few sacrificing themselves for the many.

Not surprisingly, the memorials held in their honor throughout the week, like President Bush's initial announcement of the disaster, shuttled effortlessly between the sacred and the mundane.

Ramon's death was marked and mourned with such intensity because of how he lived his life, and because of how we dream of living ours. He asserted the importance of his Jewishness to his life's mission, understanding that in serving his faith and his people, he was serving all of humanity; and in serving all humanity, he served his people.  

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