From Bill Sutter’s Desk Mar/Apr 2003

Israelis were proud…and so were we. Then they grieved; and we grieved with them.

For a fleeting moment, the beleaguered Jewish state forgot its bitter sorrow as it watched its first astronaut, 48-year-old Col. Ilan Ramon, and six other members of the space shuttle Columbia blast into outer space. To Israel, Ramon symbolized hope. He was evidence that dreams can become realities and that nations can unite to serve humanity in peace.

The shuttle crew’s death on February 1 hit me particularly hard. I was a member of the Israeli delegation that went to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to view the launch. When I arrived at the delegation’s hotel as a guest of Israel’s Ministry of Science and the Israel Space Agency, I faced the tightest security in NASA’s history. My car was thoroughly searched by security personnel and explosives-sniffing dogs. The hotel’s perimeters were sealed by teams of local police and county sheriffs, with additional security posted throughout the facility and sharpshooters stationed at the corners of the roof. From my room I observed police on the beach, guarding the hotel on horseback and in dune buggies. And in the ocean were several U.S. Coast Guard patrol boats. All these precautions were in place to protect the Israeli delegation from those in our world who hate the Jewish people and labor daily for Israel’s destruction.

Even in the euphoria of this historic moment, memories of persecution and suffering lingered close behind. At a reception for Col. Ramon prior to the launch, Israeli ambassador to the United States, Daniel Ayalon, declared, “As Israel’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon makes us very proud. He is a living testimony to the resilience and determina­tion of the Jewish peo­ple.” Ramon’s mother survived Auschwitz, Hitler’s notorious exter­mination camp in Poland. Several other relatives, including Col. Ramon’s grandfather, perished at the hands of the Nazis.

Among the personal items Ramon chose to accompany him was a drawing titled ”Moon Landscape,” borrowed from Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial. It was the work of an extra­ordinarily talented four­. een-year-old Jewish boy named Petr Ginz, whose imagination carried him from imprisonment in the Theresien­stadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia to the serenity of outer space. The Nazis eventually moved Petr to Auschwitz, where they killed him in 1944.

Petr’s younger sister, Eva (Chava) Pressburger, a Holocaust survivor, lives in Israel and joined virtually everyone there watching the launch live on television. “It’s as though my brother is now there with Ilan,” she said. Col. Ramon probably felt the same way: “I feel that my journey fulfills the dream of Petr Ginz 58 years on. The walls [of Theresienstadt] … could not conquer his spirit,” he said earlier, while training in Houston, Texas.

Ramon also brought onboard an Israeli flag, a copy of the Israeli Declaration of Independence, and a Shabbat goblet. It remains to be seen what, if anything, will be recovered from the shuttle debris scattered across Texas.

To view the launch, our three hundred-member delegation was transported by police-escorted motorcade from the hotel to the closest viewing point permitted at the Kennedy Space Center. Massive security measures along the way included barricaded streets and American fighter jets patrolling overhead. Even the actu­al launch time was kept secret until twenty-four hours in advance.

When the countdown reached zero, cheers and tears flowed from our delegation at the tremendous roar of the mammoth shuttle engines. As the Columbia soared up into the deep blue Florida skies, huge bursts of white smoke appeared. “It was very, very mov­ing,” said the Israeli ambassador. “You know,” he added, “these are our national colors.”

Now our tears flow again. We extend our deepest sympathy to the families of all our astro­nauts. We mourn them because we are Americans who love our country-and because we are Bible-believing Christians who love the nation of Israel. To our dear Israeli friends, we say,

The LORD bless thee, and keep thee; The LORD make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee; The LORD lift up his countenance upon thee and give thee peace (Num. 6:24-26).

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