From the moment I met Ilan Ramon some 15 months ago, there was an instant feeling of warmth, love, and total informality between us-we were like brothers, laughing, joking, and hugging each other. He showed extraordinary respect to me as a Rabbi, but what touched me most was his genuine humility and sincerity.
Just from Ilan’s smile, you could tell he was different. He was a decorated Air Force Colonel and a brilliant scientist, yet anyone who knew Ilan recognized that the only pride he harbored was Jewish pride. With regard to the space mission, it would have been convenient for Ilan to act in a secular manner and concentrate exclusively on the many sophisticated scientific experiments involved in his mission. Doing so would have earned him prestige with the Israeli Space Agency & NASA, but Ilan chose to also showcase his Jewish soul. While some Jews are so embarrassed about their heritage that they will not display it in public, Ilan took his Jewishness with him into space.
Last year Ilan asked me when one is meant to observe Shabbat in space, where every 90 minutes the sun sets, making every 10 ½ hours Sabbath and every 20 days Rosh Hashanah!
Jerusalem, we have a problem!
I must admit, though, I learned more from the question than the answer. Ilan taught me that no matter how fast we’re going, no matter how important our work, we must pause and think about why we are here on this earth!
Ilan’s request to NASA to keep kosher during the mission showed he had “the right stuff.” Bringing a historical Torah scroll on board, and his effort to observe Shabbat and make Kiddush while in orbit, was pushing it a bit. Ilan’s request that NASA delay the launch until after Tisha B’av (the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av-the saddest day on the Jewish calendar-which was the original scheduled launch date) was plain chutzpah! [Interestingly, at our Shabbat dinner table the night before the scheduled landing, I mentioned this postponement. One guest, a NASA engineer who worked at the Shuttle Launch facility for many years, adamantly rejected the possibility that NASA could have rescheduled the launch. The following week I confirmed it; Ramon had, indeed, convinced NASA to postpone the launch.] Yet it was this chutzpah emanating from a pure heart filled with sincerity and Jewish pride, that won Ilan the admiration of his fellow astronauts, NASA, and the innumerable hearts he touched worldwide.
On the Shabbat morning of the scheduled landing, I was walking to synagogue with my 10-year-old daughter just after 9 A.M. When we did not hear the sonic boom that we expected at 9:16, we assumed that the landing was postponed due to bad weather at the Cape. How crushing was the news when a member of the Satellite Beach Police rushed into our synagogue just minutes before 10 A.M. to inform us of the catastrophe.
Our hearts were broken. After Shabbat, I called Ilan’s wife, Rona, and told her that Ilan had chosen to go to space as a Jew, and that his memory will forever be imbedded in our hearts. He had carried the Torah, the soul of the Jewish people, with him. I told her that we are planning to write a new Torah scroll to replace the Holocaust Torah that Ilan had taken with him on the mission, and would be giving it to her family in time for their son Tal’s Bar Mitzvah. She cried and I cried with her.
By Divine Providence, the El-Al plane I took to Ilan’s funeral was the plane carrying his remains home. Everyone on the flight, the Israeli Army Rabbi, the pilots, the stewards, and the passengers, were filled with emotion. I merited reciting Kaddish for his lofty soul in a service arranged by the head steward.
After the Shuttle disaster, people wondered if any results of the scientific experiments had come back before the tragedy. One experiment has produced obviously remarkable results: the feeling of Jewish pride Ilan inspired in countless Jewish hearts. Imagine the Jewish children around the globe who today know about keeping kosher and Shabbat only because a Jewish astronaut stressed their importance even in outer space. That vision of pride and hope is desperately needed today when only hedonism is offered to our youth. It is encouraging to see that the polls in Israel show that the highest demand for Purim costumes this year is Ilan Ramon, rather than Elvis Presley or Britney Spears.
I was honored to have been a friend of Ilan Ramon.
Today, I am humbled to be part of his legacy.