not only to every corner of the globe, but also to the deep recesses of outer space.
TORAHS, MEZUZOS, AND DREIDELS
The first Jew in space was Judith Resnick (born 5709/1949 in Akron, Ohio), who joined the Discovery space shuttle’s first voyage in 5744/1984. Two years later, she was also the first Jew to perish in space flight, when the Challenger shuttle blew up seconds after being launched from the Kennedy Space Center.
Although Jewish astronauts are generally not observant, most of them feel a need to express their Jewish roots during their jaunts into space.
For example, in 5755/1985, Jeffrey Hoffman (born 5704/1944 in Brooklyn) took four mezuzos with him on the Discovery II shuttle mission. Copies of the mezuzah cases have joined the approximately one thousand mezuzah cases on display in the foyer of the “Great Synagogue” in Yerushalayim.
Back in 5728/1968, when Apollo 8 circled the moon, astronaut Frank Borman (a non-Jew) movingly read verses from Bereishis.
Not to be outdone, Jeffrey Hoffman took a “space Torah” with him during a Columbia shuttle flight, in 5756/1996, and read verses from Bereishis in Hebrew as his spacecraft passed over Yerushalayim.
“Wherever Jews have wandered, they have taken the Torah with them,” he said at the time. He was praised for demonstrating “that one could embrace traditional Jewish values and yet venture into the newest frontiers of human existence.”
Eight years later, in 5753/1993, astronaut David Wolf boarded a Columbia shuttle flight with fellow Jewish astronaut, Martin Fettman, taking along a shofar and some mezuzos.
Four years later, when Wolf lived in the Mir Space Station, from September 5758/1997 until January 5758/1998, he fasted on Yom Kippur although he was not quite certain when to do so as he was experiencing a new sunrise every 90 minutes.
He took a mehora up with him but, as lighting flames is about the most dangerous thing one can do aboard a spacecraft, he left it unlit. He did manage to observe another Chanukah custom however: “I probably have the record dreidel spin,” he reported. “It went for about an hour and a half (because of zero gravity) before I lost it. It showed up a few weeks later in an air filter.”
KOSHER IN SPACE
The most famous Jewish astronaut of all is, of course, Ilan Ramon, who said that, as Israel’s first astronaut, “I’m kind of a representative of all the Jewish community.”
As an expression of this, he ordered kosher food for his 5763/2003 flight and organized a special zero-gravity cup over which to make Kiddush.
“I told them I wanted kosher food and they told me they’d have to check it out because nobody until today has asked them for kosher food,” he reported at the time.
When NASA announced that they could accommodate Ramon’s request, one rabbi quipped, “This was one small step for Colonel Ramon but a large step for Jews worldwide.”
After Ilan Ramon plunged to earth in the Columbia space shuttle, a saga that had begun decades earlier in the Bergen- Belsen concentration camp came to a fiery end. Among the Jewish mementoes Ramon brought on board was a tiny sefer Torah with a heartbreaking history.
The story began when Rav Dasberg, the chief rabbi of the Netherlands, was deported to Bergen-Belsen. This spiritual giant utilized every spare moment of his hellish new life to daven and learn from the sefarim he had secretly brought with him.
A Dutch Jew recorded in his diary how Rav Dasberg and other Jews were once caught at the crematorium gates saying Kaddish for the Nazis’ latest victims, and were punished with extra-hard labor. Also in the camp was a youngster named Yoachim Joseph who was born in Berlin and raised in Amsterdam. His father was totally non-observant and Yoachim experienced little of Judaism except occasionally accompanying a religious uncle to shul. Yoachim’s family was deported to Bergen-Belsen in Lower Saxony, Germany, in 5703/1943, where 60,000 Jews perished.
Yoachim and his younger brother were separated from their parents and housed in the same barracks as Rav Dasberg. When Rav Dasberg learnt that Yoachim’s barmitzvah was coming up, he began teaching him his bar-mitzvah parsha in the dead of night and revealed to him a closely-guarded secret.
Wrapped in a green velveteen box, Rav Dasberg had one of the smallest sifrei Torah ever written. Most sifrei Torah are almost half-a-meter high, while this one was just four-and-a-half inches tall. On the night of Yoachim’s bar-mitzvah, his barrack inmates covered the windows with blankets and lit four candles. Rav Dasberg unfurled his sefer Torah and Yoachim slowly recited the brachos and read his parsha by candlelight.
“There were people listening in the beds all around,” Yoachim told the Washington Post in an interview. “Afterwards, somebody fished out a piece of chocolate that he had saved and gave it to me and somebody else brought out a deck of playing cards. Everybody congratulated me. Everybody told me, ‘You’re a bar-mitzvah boy now. You’re an adult now.’ I was very happy. Then everything was taken down and we went out to the morning roll-call.” Afterwards, Rav Dasberg gave Yoachim the sefer Torah as a gift.
“This little sefer Torah is yours to keep now,” he said, “because I’m sure that I will not get out of here alive and maybe you will.”
“I didn’t want to take it but he convinced me.” Yoachim said in his interview. “And his condition was that I had to promise that if I ever got out of there, I must tell the story of my bar-mitzvah.” After the war, it turned out that Rav Dasberg’s premonition was correct. He passed away on February 24, 5705/1945, less than two months before British troops liberated the camp.
Yoachim had wrapped the sefer Torah in rags and buried it deep in his backpack. Conditions in the camp grew worse and his weight plummeted to 42 pounds. His feet ached continuously from the agonizing cold. No longer capable of normal work, he was given the task of limping from bunk to bunk after roll-call and checking whether anyone lying there was dead. His job was to drag the corpses outside and load them onto a cart for disposal. Then Yoachim was saved by a miracle. A paternal uncle, who had fought for the French Resistance, escaped to Switzerland and procured fake South-American passports for Yoachim’s family. The emaciated Joseph family was reunited on a train of captured foreign nationals whom the Germans were trying to exchange for German prisoners of war and, soon after the war, the family made its way to Palestine.
Incidentally, when Haj Amin al-Husseini, the Mufti (chief Moslem cleric of Palestine), who was exiled in Berlin, heard that Jewish lives were being saved in this fashion, he shot off an angry telegram to the German Foreign Minister, Joachim von Ribbentrop, arguing that:
“This exchange on the part of the Germans would encourage the Balkan countries likewise to send their Jews to Palestine. This step would be incomprehensible to the Arabs and Moslems after your Excellency’s declaration of November 2, 1943 that ‘the destruction of the so-called Jewish national home in Palestine is an immutable part of the policy of the Greater German Reich’ and it would create in them a feeling of keen disappointment.”
AN OLD PROMISE KEPT
In Palestine, Yoachim Joseph wanted to forget the past and go on with his life but his father insisted that he keep his promise to Rav Dasberg and, in 5711/1951, Yoachim publicized his story in The Jerusalem Post. For the next forty years, Yoachim tried to wipe the whole incident from his memory.
“I screwed it deep down,” he said. “I managed to forget it.”
Meanwhile, he studied atmospheric physics, receiving a doctorate in 5726/1966, and made pioneering experiments, exploring how dust in the atmosphere influences the climate. Ilan Ramon was intending to study the affect of the Sahara Desert’s dust on the climate during his space-flight and, in this connection, he visited Yoachim’s home and noticed the tiny sefer Torah on a shelf in the study.
“He was so deeply affected,” says Yoachim, “he almost cried.”
A few months later, Ramon phoned from Houston and asked for permission to take the sefer Torah into space and, remembering his old promise to Rav Dasberg, that he would use the sefer to perpetuate the memory of his concentration camp bar-mitzvah, Yoachim agreed. Before his fateful flight, Ramon held the sefer Torah in his arms and told Prime Minister Sharon and other government officials in a televised conference, “This represents, more than anything else, the ability of the Jewish people to survive despite everything from horrific periods, black days, to reach periods of hope and belief in the future.”
After the Columbia catastrophe, Yoachim said, “I feel now that I was finally able to fulfill by promise to Rav Dasberg of more than fifty years ago, and on a grand scale. I’m very grateful to Ilan for making it possible. I’m sorry that it’s gone. It did what it was perhaps destined to do.”