One by one, New Yorkers of all ages, religions and ethnic backgrounds (some with moist eyes, all with aching hearts) filed into the small lobby on the 14th floor of the Israeli Consulate in Midtown.
Patiently they waited in line to express their emotions on paper, composing words of grief and comfort.
“At first I prayed for the astronauts to survive,” said Lilia Almario, a Lithuanian immigrant living in Flatbush, Brooklyn. “Then I switched my prayers to the living relatives and to all of Israel.”
Besides prayer, the elderly Almario was compelled to do more. She joined scores of others who trekked, as if on a pilgrimage, to the consulate this week to sign a special memorial book for Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut, who died tragically with his six colleagues when the space shuttle Columbia blew apart Saturday minutes from touching down in Florida.
It was a scene played out in Israeli consulates worldwide, even as there were heartbreaking reports Tuesday that a woman in Vernon Parish, La., found fabric bearing a blue Star of David on a silver background, presumably part of the suit worn by Ramon. On Wednesday his remains were discovered in Louisiana, and Israel was planning a military funeral.
In New York, the book was placed in the lobby on a small table next to snapshots of Ramon and the Columbia crew.
Visitors focused on Ramon, who provided a brief ray of hope for a Jewish nation besieged by a seemingly endless cycle of conflict. There were elementary school students, war veterans, Holocaust survivors and people off the street who came to mourn the handsome 48-year-old Israeli Air Force colonel and father of four.
They wrote in English, Hebrew and Russian. There was an Asian-American man from New Jersey, and a Hispanic building engineer from The Bronx.
It felt like a death in their family: Jewish or not.
“My soul and body grieve,” sobbed Brooklyn grandfather Martin Tapper, tears in his eyes.
“I feel terrible for the family, for Jews all over, and everyone in Israel,” said Flatbush resident Susan Glaser, who first heard about the tragedy during Sabbath services at her Orthodox synagogue.
“When it happened, I cried. My heart really was broken,” said Almario, a born-again Christian.
“Divine energy brought me here,” said Ilana Wolfe, a Manhattanite who inscribed: “May this brave explorer reign supreme among the stars.”
Gary Phillips, a white-haired Holocaust survivor from Berlin, said his “Jewish consciousness” compelled him to come. “He’s mishpocha [family].”
A 5-year-old named Ryan wrote: “I feel sad of this explosion and I hope they are with God.”
A one-day signing quickly became a weeklong project due to the heavy response, said a consulate spokesperson, adding that the book will be given to Ramon’s family.
There were other memorials for Ramon as the Jewish community struggled to deal with yet another body blow at a time of increasing anti-Semitism around the world and the growing drumbeat of war in the Middle East.
They praised his valor, his intelligence and his good heart. They recalled when he first became an Israeli hero 22 years ago as the youngest fighter pilot on the mission that destroyed an Iraqi nuclear reactor.
Yeshiva University president Dr. Norman Lamm led a memorial service in his Washington Heights auditorium packed with students and faculty, praising Ramon as “a hero to a nation hurting [who] gave hope for the future in an uncertain present.”
“There is much we must learn from the life and death of Ilan Ramon, especially because he was neither religious nor anti-religious,” insisted Rabbi Lamm from the heart of Modern Orthodoxy. “Here was a self-proclaimed secular Jew who nevertheless demonstrated marvelous respect for the Jewish tradition and sensitivity for the feelings of his observant fellow Israelis.” He praised Ramon for being the first Jewish astronaut to take several Jewish religious items into space, including a Torah that survived the Holocaust, alongside futuristic scientific experiments.
“Like Moses, who went up to receive the Torah and bring it down to the people of Israel, so too Ilan Ramon went up bringing the Torah of Moses to display to his people on earth,” Lamm said.
While not the first Jew in space, Ramon was the first astronaut to publicly proclaim his Jewishness. He ate kosher meals in space, and brought with him a credit card-sized microfiche of the Bible given to him by Israeli President Moshe Katsav, as well as some mezuzahs.
He also took a tiny Torah scroll used by a 13-year-old boy in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.
Itamar Rabinovich, president of Tel Aviv University, where Ramon attended, called the astronaut “a pioneer and national hero to the Israeli people and to Jewish people around the world.” His death is “an immeasurable loss.”
Memorial services were being held in various synagogues around the nation, even as President George W. Bush Tuesday flew to Johnson Space Center in Houston to join NASA astronauts and the families of the Columbia crew: Rick Husband, William McCool, Michael Anderson, Laurel Clark, David Brown and Kalpana Chawla, a U.S. citizen born in India, in a special national ceremony.
A second memorial service was scheduled Thursday at the National Cathedral in Washington. Also Thursday, a group of Israeli volunteers from ZAKA-Identification of Victims of Disaster said they would continue helping NASA search for body parts.
World leaders expressed their condolences, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer.
But some, in Iraq and in Palestinian areas, welcomed the shuttle disaster, calling it divine punishment against their enemies.
“Israel launched an aggression on us when it raided our nuclear reactor without any reason,” Mohammed Jaber Tamini, an Iraqi car mechanic, told reporters. “Now time has come and God has retaliated to their aggression.”
“This is a message from God to America and Israel that they must stop their aggression against the Arabs and Muslims,” Salim Najjar, a mosque preacher from a Palestinian village near Jerusalem, told worshipers, according to the Jerusalem Post.
In New York, the Israeli Consulate and several Jewish organizations scheduled a memorial service Wednesday at the Park East Synagogue.
And there were also more personal expressions of grief.
Ramon’s cousin Yael Sucher told The Jewish Week Tuesday that she is devastated by the death of the child she called “The Golden Boy.”
“I loved him like my own child,” said Sucher, 79, of Manalapan, N.J. “Ilan was like a ray of sunshine from the day he was born. I don’t know how to cope with this, it’s such a horrible loss.”
Sucher had attended the Columbia launch in Florida on Jan. 16 and was filled with such pride that she wrote a story about it for her local synagogue newsletter, which now she laments will never be published.
“It is wonderful to be closely related to a national hero,” she wrote. “I always felt there was something very special about him. At the age of 11, I saw a unique quality in him and his personality. In addition to his good looks and his captivating smile, he exuded a certain serenity and mental stability.”
During the final countdown of the launch “our hearts were racing,” Sucher said. “We waived our small Israeli flags, and tears of joy and immense pride and relief streamed down our faces.”
Sucher said she is a regular Sabbath observer, but last Saturday, she couldn’t resist turning on the television to watch her cousin’s safe landing.
“I was expecting to be more elated and jubilant,” she confided. “Instead, when they said there is a problem, my heart sank and I could not believe what I heard. Minute by minute it became less likely we’ll ever see them again. I’ve been in mourning ever since.”
Shraga Mekel, director of development in New York for Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum, lamented the passing of a man he befriended last year when he asked Ramon to take a Holocaust-related item into space.
Ramon wound up taking an illustration called “Moon Landing,” drawn by Peter Ginz, a 14-year old Jewish boy who died in Auschwitz. Ramon’s mother and grandmother survived the infamous death camp.
“He was a good guy and was down to earth, despite his status,” Mekel told The Jewish Week. “It is eerie that Peter Ginz died in the flames of Auschwitz and Ramon, who took the boy’s aspirations into space, also died in flames.”
The Texas rabbi who served the Ramon family during the five years the Israeli spent training in Houston expressed his grief in a touching e-mail written to colleagues.
Rabbi Stuart Federow of Congregation Shaar Hashalom in Clear Lake talked about how he and Ramon discussed getting kosher food in space and observing the Sabbath.
“He would, with his family, attend services on an occasional basis,” Rabbi Federow said. “He was an incredibly kind, gentle man.”
Rabbi Federow wrote in an e-mail letter: “Ilan Ramon understood that being the first Israeli astronaut brought with it great responsibilities, not just to Israel, but also to Jews worldwide, and he told me this himself. He understood that Jews all over the world were proud of him.”
But the rabbi said that when it came to his children, NASA took second place. “Ilan would be in briefings, deeply in intense discussion on the mission, when he would be interrupted by one of his four kids on the phone,” he said. “NASA waited, not his family.”
Rabbi Federow also revealed for the first time Ramon’s deep commitment to Jewish tradition. “I will tell you a story that I am not sure I am supposed to tell, but I want everyone to know,” he began. “Ilan was scheduled to be launched on his spaceship on July 18, 2002. When he found out that it was Tisha b’Av, he spoke to the commander of the mission and, for the first time in NASA history, the launch was rescheduled for the next day, a Friday. No launch had ever been scheduled for a Friday before. No launch had ever been postponed for purely religious reasons.
“Please don’t see this as merely superstition,” the rabbi added in his e-mail. “Please don’t ever believe Ilan Ramon’s own statement that he was not a religious man. He was really saying that he was not Orthodox. But, yes, in my opinion, he certainly was a religious man.”
Ramon’s wife said he died at his peak, and enjoyed every minute in space.
“He was with the people he loved and in the place that he enjoyed so much,” Rona Ramon told reporters outside her home in Houston.
“He was a very optimistic person. He didn’t even write a will because he thought it unnecessary.”
Like her husband, she was upbeat during the entire mission.
“The only thing that tears me apart now is that during the liftoff, when we were all ‘high,’ my youngest daughter yelled out, ‘I lost my daddy.’ Apparently she was right.”