JWR Wandering Jews

Jewish World Review Feb. 3, 2003 / 1 Adar I, 5763


In "Space City," a congregation and community of Jewish astronauts mourns

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | Millions across America and around the world are mourning the loss of the seven brave astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia. But perhaps no American community has been as hard hit by this tragedy as the community of Greater Houston.

Affectionately known by many as "Space City," Houston, Texas and its surrounding area have not only been home to the Johnson Space Center for more than four decades, they have been home to NASA's extended family-astronauts, scientists, engineers, and thousands of other men and women and their families who have devoted their careers to the exploration of space and the pursuit of new frontiers.

At Congregation Shaar HaShalom in Clear Lake, Texas, located just outside Houston, approximately half of the congregation's families are involved in some way with America's space program, either by working for NASA itself, or for one of its numerous contractors in the area. As the synagogue's former rabbi, Sue Levy, explained, "NASA is not an amorphous, anonymous agency here. When we talk about NASA here, we are talking about dozens of friends. They are like the closest of families. I know these people well enough to know that if there is a cause (of this disaster), they will not rest until they find it."

Congregation Shaar HaShalom was also home to Israeli astronaut, Col. Ilan Ramon, and his family. Though they had only lived in the area for five years, the Ramon family had made many friends, many of whom were Israelis living in Houston. One close friend, Dr. Richard Chudacoff recalled, "Ilan was so much more than just an astronaut. He was an incredible father. He was a military hero. He had a wonderful sense of humor and loved to tell jokes. He was a great dancer-if people were dancing, Ilan was dancing. He loved life. He was a mentsh."


Ramon and his family enjoyed a final Sabbath dinner together before he went into quarantine (as all astronauts are required to do before each mission) with Chudacoff and his family. Chudacoff added, "What Ilan appreciated most about that evening was that we didn't make a big deal out of it. It was just a 'normal' Sabbath dinner with friends. But he was extremely happy and very much looking forward to his flight."

Chudacoff and his family traveled to Florida to watch the Shuttle's launch on January 16-and they had planned to welcome the Shuttle crew home on Sunday afternoon. At an informal gathering of Houston's Israeli community earlier on Sunday, Chudacoff could not hold back his tears. "You know, we were supposed to be at Ellington Field, welcoming them home in just a couple of hours. I can't believe what's happened. I just can't believe it."

Levy was another long-time friend of the Ramons' and echoed Chudacoff's sentiments. "This entire community would probably not exist if it were not for the Johnson Space Center and all of the NASA sub-contractors here," Levy said in an email to friends and colleagues. "Virtually everyone in the congregation knew Ilan and Rona and the kids, some better than others, but no one there was a stranger to them. There are many Israelis in the congregation (including my son-in-law) who were especially close to them."


"We have had other Jewish astronauts in the congregation," Levy continued, "most notably Dr. Jeffrey Hoffman, who flew five times before becoming a professor of astronomy at MIT. I had the privilege of praying for his safety before a couple of those flights and, thankfully, he returned safely from all of them. When the Challenger 7 flight exploded, the flight director was a member of Shaar HaShalom, as were many who worked on the flight in one way or another. They still recite kaddish for all of them at the shul. So, now there are seven more names to add to the list."

Levy described Ramon as "an unlikely hero." She explained, "it was not widely publicized that, in his career as a fighter pilot, he was one of the individuals who flew into Iraq to blow up their nuclear reactor in 1981. He was one of the most self-effacing, humble people I knew. The stereotype of Israelis is almost always about someone loud and aggressive. Ilan was quiet and unassuming. Much has been said about the fact that his mother was a Holocaust survivor. Ilan was so clearly in love with life, taking pleasure in the smallest of things, I think his background put life into perspective for him."

"When I flash back on memories of times that we shared together," Levy stated, "I think about the birthday party for Yiftach at an ice-skating rink. Once minute Ilan was wiping tears from a little boy who fell on the ice. The next minute he was helping to serve pizza. It makes you ask what heroism is, really? It is a struggle for me to reconcile what I knew about the mentsh and family man with the larger than life aspect of this person who adored his children and just happened to be a national hero in Israel."

A member of Houston's Israeli community described Ramon as "a bright light." "The past two years have been such a period of darkness for the people of Israel," he explained. "I was there just two weeks ago when Israel suffered yet another suicide bombing that killed 23 people. You cannot imagine the horror of that experience. The images you see. And to have, in the middle of this terrible time, our first astronaut going into space. It was the highest of highs. He was like a light of hope. And now, to have it end like this. I just cannot describe it. It is beyond belief."

"The qualities that Ilan exemplified most were his love and humility, his infectious good humor and his faith in the future," Levy stated. "He was proud of the NASA uniform with the Israeli flag on his sleeve, but his greatest pride was in his family and friends. He was most truly honored to be a source of hope for Israel in such troubled times. I hope that Israel will still find a way to rejoice in who he was and all that he accomplished on their behalf."


An impromptu memorial to Ramon and all the fallen astronauts was created in front of the Houston Jewish Community Center's main building by hundreds of people from across the Greater Houston Jewish community, in particular members of Houston's Israeli community; in addition, scores of people stopped by the offices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston to pay their respects and sign an informal book of condolences, which will be presented to the Ramon family at a later date. A community-wide Memorial Service for all of the fallen astronauts will be sponsored by the Greater Houston Jewish community on tonight 2003 at 7:30 p.m. at Congregation Beth Yeshurun, 4525 Beechnut. In addition, the Israeli Consulate for the Southwestern United States, located at 24 Greenway Plaza, Suite 1500, will be open from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. on Monday, February 3, for people wishing to sign a formal book of condolence.

Lee Wunsch, Chief Executive Officer for the Jewish Federation of Greater Houston, summed up the community's sentiments by saying, it "was a tragic, horrific day for our community and our nation. We come together as a community to mourn the loss of these six brave Americans and one brave Israeli. And we reach out to our friends and neighbors in NASA's extended family to offer our prayers and our assistance in this time of great sorrow."

  —   Barbara Raynor

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