Two Jews, three opinions on Red Planet, NASA finds

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The first indication, based on the current U.S. space mission, came a few days ago when the small roving vehicle called Sojourner spotted a sign on the rocky terrain of the Red Planet that read, "Welcome To Chabad House — Bring Moshiach Now."

The sign, in English, thrilled and confused NASA scientists back in Houston, who had no idea what it meant.

Only after thorough research did they learn that it revealed the presence of a dedicated and particularly hearty group of Lubavitch Chassidim, known for their tireless efforts to reach Jews in the most remote regions, urging them to perform mitzvot.

"We've been here for sometime now doing our work," said a cheerful Rabbi Lou Steinwalker, captain of the spaceship Enterprise 770, in an exclusive phone interview. "It was a long trip," he noted, "but not as much traffic as in Brooklyn. And no tolls."

When asked how long he had been on Mars and how he got there, he said only, "Where there's a will, there's a way." He then excused himself, explaining that it was time for prayer and he was looking for a minyan.

In a subsequent phone call, the rabbi noted that in recent days another synagogue has been formed on Mars — a Reform congregation that he would not set foot in.

Following up on that information, the Jewish Week learned that Rabbi Uri Negev, a Reform leader in Israel, has indeed formed a congregation on the distant planet. Contacted by phone, he said that when he had met secretly with the chief rabbis of Israel in Jerusalem recently, they told him that if Reform Jews wanted to pray in peace, they should go to Mars.

"So we did," said Negev, "and no one has bothered us, except the local Conservative congregation that keeps trying to borrow our membership list."

A Conservative congregation on Mars? Yes, it is true, acknowledged a leader of the Jewish Theological Seminary. "We discovered that blending Jewish law and modernity just doesn't work on earth, and we're always looking for new venues," explained Rabbi Izmore Sources.

"Aside from the theological challenges," he said, "there's the question of whether bingo can sustain us outside of the pull of the Earth's atmosphere."

The rabbi complained bitterly of financial competition from the United Jewish Appeal-Interplanetary Division, which has been scouring Mars via satellite in search of potential donors.

Stephen Solomon, the chief executive of the charity, acknowledged that highly motivated fund-raisers have been active throughout the galaxy for several light years.

"We've determined through a Strategic Planet Plan that our most compelling marketing strategy is rescue," he said. "The trouble is we haven't found anyone out there to save."

That's been a problem, as well, for Abraham Loxsmith of the Anti-Defamation League. "We are prepared to open a major branch on Mars, and we've already ordered the press releases and fax paper. But so far, no one has defamed us."

Loxsmith is considering whether the lack of defamation may be due to a form of active, even hostile, disinterest in Jews that qualifies as anti-Semitism.

All this sudden interest among Jews about Mars has motivated Malcolm Phoneline to form a new umbrella group, the Conference of Presidents of Major Martian Jewish Organizations. He said the group has already received several calls from anonymous rabbis inquiring as to whether there were any Pell Grants available on Mars.

Meanwhile, a number of kosher-for-Passover tours have scouted out the Red Planet as a unique alternative to places like Palm Springs and Hawaii for jaded holiday vacationers.

"We'd seen a sudden interest among clients to spend next Pesach in Roswell, N.M.," said one tour operator. "But Mars will be great. There's no chance of rain — or of bumping into relatives."

He noted that Rabbi Orson Vells has already been hired to conduct and broadcast the communal seders, to be called "The War Of The Words," and that space stations are under construction to transport large supplies of oxygen, horseradish and shmura matzah for the eight-day festival.

"It will be out of this world," the travel expert said, "and, I assure you, very tastefully done."

Tourism might be affected adversely, though, by a late report that Palestinian authorities are claiming entitlement to 92 percent of Mars, asserting that Arab ties to the planet can be traced back to the Koran.