On February 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia exploded and incinerated as it began its return descent to earth. Among the seven noble astronauts lost, from a wide range of backgrounds and creeds, was Israel’s first space traveler—Col. Ilan Ramon, a decorated Air Force hero and the mission payload specialist.
A journey from the collective barbed wire of Jewish history.
Also lost was the first Torah ever flying in space, a scroll that had ascended all the way from the hellish depths of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. According to published reports, a lifelong friend of Col. Ramon had given him the unique scroll to carry with him into the galaxies. The friend, Joachim “Yoya” Joseph, blessed and read from that scroll at his treacherously furtive bar mitzvah ceremony in the Nazi death camp.
Indeed, Yoya’s bar mitzvah ceremony did not take place in a synagogue or at a country club. There was no party afterwards, no reception or photograph booth for the guests. There were no prayer books available. There was no disc jockey presiding and certainly no dancing. There was fear as keen as the ritual was breathlessly pure.
Nobody enjoyed platters of tuna fish or lox and cream cheese or sushi samples while comparing each other’s wardrobes. Folks did not sip on wine varietals. People did not step out and gaze at the skies. There was an existential risk, at this most genuine of bar mitzvah ceremonies, of being found out and summarily executed by military guards who were the ushers in the Kingdom of Death.
The rabbi involved in this secret ceremony had somehow kept the old scroll hidden from the genocidal sentries of World War II. After the war, Yoya, who survived along with the Torah, remembered that the rabbi had admonished him to let the world know what happened to the Jews between 1933 and 1945. And that is why Yoya transferred the holy scroll to Ilan Ramon to convey on board the Shuttle.
According to the Forward newspaper, Col. Ramon also took with him a drawing of the earth as imagined from the moon which had been sketched by a 14-year old boy who perished in Theresienstadt—the cynically named “Artists’ Colony” that the Nazis used to deceive the Red Cross. The mercy agency half-heartedly inspected the place intermittently and cooperated with the ghastly pretense. Ramon also transported a mezuzah made from barbed wire on his journey that symbolized the liberation of the Jewish people from the collective barbed wire of history.
Ilan Ramon, athletic, scientifically brilliant, handsome, embodied the finest qualities of the State of Israel—the greatest response to genocide in the history of humankind. The fact that he was among the pilots that successfully destroyed Iraq’s nuclear reactor in 1981 (when Saddam Hussein did actually have a developing arsenal of weapons of mass destruction) did not affect his affection for holiness. It meant the world to him to carry that scroll into the heavens.
Look up at sky the next time you experience a clear night. You will notice a shining star that will never burn out, the galactic Torah that is as eternal as the Jewish people.