Tragedy stirs memories of 1st Jew to die in space

AKRON, Ohio — For the Jewish community of Akron, Ohio, Saturday's explosion of the space shuttle Columbia brought back painful memories of the 1986 Challenger disaster, which took the life of Akron native Judith A. Resnik.

Rabbi David Horowitz, now retired from Akron's Temple Israel, officiated at the memorial service for Resnik at that synagogue in 1986. He spent Saturday following the television coverage of the explosion and was stunned by the fact that both space shuttle crews had a Jewish astronaut on board.

"At Judy Resnik's memorial service, I remember ending the Kaddish with the words, 'May the God who brings peace in the high places bring peace to this astronaut who reached out to touch those high places.' I would surely express that same prayer on behalf of Ilan Ramon," said Horowitz.

Michael D. Wise, executive director of the Jewish Community Board of Akron, said he had vivid memories of that memorial service, memories that were recalled by Saturday's explosion.

"Judy was Akron's child, and her memorial service at Akron's Temple Israel in 1986 was one of the saddest moments I can remember. As we left the synagogue, four Air Force fighter jets flew overhead in the missing man's formation — the traditional tribute to a fallen flier. The Columbia explosion, and the loss of Ilan Ramon, re-ignites all those emotions," he said.

"In 1986, we had personal feelings of loss because we knew Judy and her family. We don't have that same personal connection with Ilan Ramon, but we feel heartbroken for the country of Israel. He was the culmination of a dream for Israel, the one bright spot to which people could point. Fourteen astronauts have died in U.S. space missions, and of that amount, two were Jewish, which is an amazing number," said Wise.

Another Akron rabbi wasn't able to hide his strong personal feelings about the Columbia tragedy. He found out about the tragedy during Shabbat services Saturday morning and broke down in tears while announcing the sad news to his congregation.

Students at the community's school, Jerome Lippman Jewish Community Day School, felt the impact in a personal way as well. "The Columbia space shuttle disaster reaches close to home for us. Every year our students participate in a simulated space mission at the Challenger Learning Center in Wheeling, West Virginia, making many of our students intimately familiar with the space shuttle program," said Sarah Rzepka, director of Hebrew and Judaics.

As a result, the school's Monday morning prayer service was devoted to talking about Ilan Ramon, his accomplishments and his Jewish identity. A bulletin board will soon be dedicated to all the Columbia astronauts who lost their lives. Ramon and Akron's Resnik will be featured prominently.

"In the Jewish religion, each individual's life is important. We want to recognize all of the crew's accomplishments as well as highlighting Ilan Ramon," said Rzepka.

Livia Kades, a kindergarten teacher at Akron's only Jewish day school, remembers Reznick from their days together in Hebrew school at Akron's Beth El Congregation. "Judy was so brilliant. Her death was such a tremendous loss to the world. And Saturday's events just brought back all those memories,'' she said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. and Israeli flags flew at half staff outside the Jerry Shaw Jewish Community Center of Akron, home base for Akron's 3,500 Jewish community members.