To boldly go …

To boldly go …

Temple Emanuel’s Shavuot service focuses on outer space and the Jews

This children’s book described how Dr. Hoffman brought a Torah to space.
This children’s book described how Dr. Hoffman brought a Torah to space.

One of Rabbi Joseph Prouser’s many talents is his well-honed ability to take almost any topic that interests him and not only make it generally relevant Jewishly but tie it to specific occasions.

Take, say, Shavuot, the holiday when we celebrate the harvest and God’s gift of the Torah to the assembled Israelite nation, amid thunder flashing and lightning bellowing, on Mount Sinai. What might that have to do with Jews in space?

Rabbi Prouser, who leads Temple Emanuel of North Jersey, is glad you asked.

“I think that part of Shavuot is looking back at our ancient origins and asserting that we are prepared to carry those traditions and legacy into the future,” he said. “Our theme gives expression to that hopeful attitude, and I think that our guest speaker has addressed and acted on it dramatically.”

Ah. The guest speaker.

It’s Jeffrey Alan Hoffman, the Brooklyn-born, Scarsdale-raised, Harvard-educated professor of aeronautics and astronautics at MIT, who flew on NASA’s space shuttle five times.

He will speak to the community on Zoom, on June 11, just before Shavuot starts at nightfall. (See box.)

He’s also deeply, proudly Jewish, an active shul-goer who brought Jewish objects, including a dreidel, a mezuzah, a Chanukiah, and a tiny sefer Torah, into space with him.

A children’s book, “Space Torah: Astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman’s Cosmic Mitzvah” by Rachelle Burk, describes how Dr. Hoffman dreamed of becoming an astronaut, pursued the dream, and reached his goal, and how he brought a Torah scroll with him on his last trip. “It’s a beautiful book,” Rabbi Prouser said. “I will show it at Shavuot, and then give it to my grandchildren.

Jeffrey Alan Hoffman (NASA)

“Dr. Hoffman wrote a memoir of his own,” he added — it’s called “An Astronaut’s Diary.”

Dr. Hoffman wrote an afterword to the children’s book, where he described bringing pieces of Judaica into space, and then giving them away. (Astronauts are allowed to bring a lunchbox-size container filled with whatever objects they like with them into space, and then to give them away as they choose.)

“The fact that they were in space makes these items all the more special,” Rabbi Prouser said. “People become very attached to them.” The mezuzah that accompanied him into orbit now is in the Jerusalem Science Museum, and the Torah is at the shul in Houston to which Dr. Hoffman belonged when he worked at NASA. “The rabbi there researched how to find a tiny sefer Torah, and the kids in the congregation were involved in deciding which one of them Dr. Hoffman should bring,” Rabbi Prouser said. “They chose the one with the clearest writing, and the congregation banded together to buy it.”

That made Dr. Hoffman’s experience of bringing a sefer Torah into space with him all the more powerful, the astronaut later wrote. Rabbi Prouser paraphrased Dr. Hoffman as saying: “When I brought a sefer Torah into space, I knew that you can’t make a sefer Torah any more special, any holier or more sacred, than it is inherently.” So instead of somehow sanctifying the scroll by allowing it to escape the Earth’s pull, as Rabbi Prouser continued paraphrasing, Dr. Hoffman said: “I felt that I was making space more special by bringing the sefer Torah there.”

“So,” Rabbi Prouser continued, “I felt that we could celebrate z’man matan Torateinu” — the time of the giving of the Torah — “with someone who did that.”

Careful to attribute this sentiment to other observers, Rabbi Prouser said that he was deeply moved because “on Shavuot, we celebrate God’s gift of the heavenly Torah to the people Israel. Here, Dr. Hoffman reversed the process, and brought the Torah back to the
heavenly spheres.

“It is clear that Dr. Hoffman is very serious about Jewish issues and Jewish identity, and that he found his space shuttle experiences to be spiritual experiences,” Rabbi Prouser continued. “He did the extraordinary. Astronauts can float in space, and he did. It gave him a unique view of the universe and an enhanced awareness of the spiritual, the presence of God, and the ultimate unity of all the residents of Earth.”

There was another thing — less universal but also deeply meaningful to Rabbi Prouser — that Dr. Hoffman carried aboard one of the space shuttle flights.

Dr. Hoffman also is not only a onetime Boy Scout but an Eagle Scout; so is Rabbi Prouser, who also for years was the Boy Scouts’ Jewish chaplain. “One of the other things that Dr. Hoffman took into space with him was a flag” — of course a very small one — “from his son’s Boy Scout troop,” Rabbi Prouser said.

Ilan Ramon (NASA)

Because the whole Jewish world is connected, or so it seems, Gary Kitmacher will introduce Dr. Hoffman. Dr. Kitmacher knows Dr. Hoffman — he’s worked at NASA since 1983, most recently as the Space and Life Sciences Directorate Manager for Crew Health Care Systems there. He and his wife met Dr. Hoffman and his wife when they all belonged to the same Conservative shul in Houston.

And Dr. Kitmacher also is Rabbi Prouser’s brother-in-law.

Dr. Ora Horn Prouser, the CEO and academic dean of the Academy of Jewish Religion, who is married to Rabbi Prouser, will be among the speakers on erev Shavuot.

“I’m going to speak about the connection between space travel and the Bible,” Dr. Prouser said. Although the obvious if literal rejoinder to that is “there isn’t any space travel in the Bible! Show me where it says so!” — there isn’t — “but right from the beginning of space travel, people already were thinking that it would be natural to consider something bigger than yourself.”

Since the Soviets were the first in space, and they were notoriously anti-religion, they had to do something prophylactic to counter that idea. So the first man in space, the cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, was quoted as having said, “I don’t see any God up here.”

Whether Gagarin actually said those words is not clear — what is clear is that the Soviets wanted him to have said them, Dr. Prouser said. They were proactive in pushing the idea that there is no more room for spirituality in space than there is on Earth.

Back in the United States, meanwhile, on Christmas Eve in 1968, the astronauts on Apollo 8 read Genesis 1-10 out loud, she continued. “I read that about a quarter of the people in America were listening. It was a very big deal. That reading of Genesis from space was commemorated with a postage stamp in 1969 that said ‘In the beginning God.’

“There just was a sense that when people are in space, they just naturally are thinking about things bigger than themselves. It’s the same as the way that people say that being in space has influenced their environmental views, when they see the Earth as just a tiny dot.”

Astronauts brought a microfilm Bible onto Apollo 13 — “it was supposed to be the first Bible to land on the surface of the moon,” Dr. Prouser said. “But they didn’t.” (Instead, the mission was aborted, the crew orbited the moon for six tense days, and then the spaceship landed in the Pacific.) “Instead, the first microfilm Bible was brought to the lunar surface with Apollo 14.

Jessica Meir (NASA)

“And then an astronaut named David Scott brought a microfilm Bible onto the moon in 1971, on Apollo 15. He left it in the moon rover, on the moon’s surface — that was clearly a big deal.

“What you see in this history is a real interest in keeping a connection between the Bible and space. I think it’s because what people read in Genesis 1 — it’s big. It is universal. It is all-encompassing. It is transcendent.”

So, Dr. Prouser said, “I think that it is worthwhile to think about these connections to the space program, to the astronauts, and to those who have seen what we have not seen and experienced what we have not experienced, to enable ourselves to feel the impact of that as we read the biblical text.

Merrill Rutman is a member of Rabbi Prouser’s shul and will be one of the speakers. He plans to talk about Jewish astronauts. “There are eight or nine of them, and only one is active right now,” he said; and that’s unsurprisingly, because “it’s not what you think of as a job for a Jewish girl or boy,” he joked. (But it is!)

He plans to focus on three or four Jewish astronauts. He’ll talk about Ilan Ramon, the Israeli astronaut who died, along with everyone else on board, when the space shuttle Columbia exploded in 2003.

He’ll also talk about Jessica Meir, an extraordinary woman, “half of the first all-female space walk in history, with partner Christina Koch, at the International Space Station in 2019,” he said.

“She was born in Caribou, Maine, in 1977 to a Swedish mother, who was Christian, and an Israeli father of Iraqi descent. At 13 she attended a youth space camp at Purdue and was inspired to venture into space.” She did — and she also earned a doctorate in marine biology from the Scripps Institute of Marine Biology, writing about emperor penguins’ diving physiology by gathering data diving under the ice with them on McMurdo Sound in Antarctica. And she also has been an assistant professor of anesthesiology at Harvard Medical School. So a walk in space? A walk in the park!

Dr. Meir identifies as culturally Jewish. She became bat mitvah. Among the items she brought on the space shuttle were an Israeli flag and a pair of socks with stars of David on them.

You clearly don’t get to become an astronaut by being ordinary or boring.

These outer-space candy bars will be served at the tikkun.

There are two more speakers planned for erev Shavuot. Dara Gelerter will talk about extra-terrestrial life in the Bible, and Debra Guston will talk about “the origins of the Star Wars saga in the Book of Maccabees.”

They both are wonderful speakers, Rabbi Prouser said.

And then, after Maariv, he will talk about “space travel in Jewish law.”

As President Ronald Reagan said after the Challenger exploded, the astronauts aboard, all of whom died, had “slipped the surly bonds of Earth.” That was a quote from a poem called “High Flight,” by John Gillespie Magee Jr.s, a Anglo-American World War II fighter pilot who died, after a plane crash, in 1941, at 19.

Although the quote gave comfort in a time of sorrow, the sonnet was about joy, connection, rare experiences, and touching the face of God. It is not Jewish — but it could have been. Here it is:

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings;
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds, — and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of — wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there,
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air…

Up, up the long, delirious burning blue
I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace
Where never lark, or ever eagle flew —
And, while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod
The high untrespassed sanctity of space,
Put out my hand, and touched the face of God.”

This stamp was released in 1969

Who: Rabbi Joseph Prouser of Temple Emanuel of North Jersey

What: Presents Tikkun Layl Shavuot — “An Out-Of-This-World Night of Learning”

When: On erev Shavuot — Tuesday, June 11 — at 6:30

Where: At the shul, in Franklin Lakes

What does it include: Speakers, davening, and a dairy buffet

For information: Go to or call (201) 560-0200

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