Ilan Ramon and the three Torahs

TORONTO — Two Torahs have been in outer space – one carried by an Israeli, the other by a Canadian. Both had been saved by Holocaust survivors, and at a recent ceremony at Beth Tikvah Synagogue to commemorate Yom Hashoah, they were linked to a third Torah now being written to honour the congregation’s Rabbi Wayne Allen.

Henry Fenichel and the Torah. [Dave Gordon photo]

A film made by Israel’s Channel One called The First Israeli in Space: The Story of Colonel Ilan Ramon, Israel’s First Astronaut was shown at the event. In January 2003, Ramon was a crew member of the space shuttle Columbia, which exploded on re-entry to Earth, minutes before its scheduled landing.

Ramon had brought a Torah, about four inches long, with him into space. It was thought to be about 100 years old, and had been smuggled into the Bergen-Belsen death camp. The Torah was used by Rabbi Dasberg of Holland to give secret bar mitzvah lessons to 13-year-old Joachim “Yoya” Joseph.

Rabbi Dasberg gave the Torah to the Joseph, knowing the boy’s chances of survival were greater than his own. Joseph survived, made aliyah, and ultimately became an astrophysicist at Tel Aviv University. He later became a mentor to Ramon, himself the son of a Holocaust survivor. Ramon asked if he could bring the Torah with him into space, in part as a symbol of the Jewish people’s ability to survive.

The second Torah that was carried into space belongs to Henry Fenichel, a physicist from Cincinnati, also a Holocaust survivor. His miniature Torah – a gift from cousins who had escaped Nazi Germany – took off into space three years after Ramon’s flight. Fenichel explained at last week’s event how he and his Torah became involved with space travel.

In 1944, Fenichel was deported from Holland to Bergen-Belsen, where he was held for six months until he was freed in a prisoner exchange for German civilians living in Palestine. Fenichel, only six at the time, lost his father in Auschwitz, and when leaving the camp, travelled with his mother for 10 gruelling days by train to Palestine.

“There are so many amazing stories to tell,” he told the audience of 300, “and I would like people to connect to their past, their heritage, and know the symbolism of these Torahs and what they represent.”

Rona Ramon, Ilan’s widow, and Joachim Joseph first learned of Fenichel’s Torah in April 2006 in a joint video conference from Israel for schoolchildren in Cincinnati. Fenichel spoke to the 150 schoolchildren in the U.S. city, where he expressed his desire to teach of the legacy of Yoya’s Torah.

After learning of the Torah that was similar to the one Ramon had taken on the Columbia, Rona Ramon asked Fenichel to allow his scroll to be carried by Canadian astronaut Steve MacLean on the shuttle Atlantis in September 2006, as a tribute to her husband.

MacLean, who had been friends with Ilan Ramon, spoke in a video message at the recent Yom Hashoah commemoration. The mini-Torah is “more than a religious symbol,” he said. “It is a symbol of hope. It was a privilege for me to do that.”

Fenichel’s Torah took some 186 trips around the Earth in the shuttle, travelling about 4.8 million miles, MacLean said, going from what he described as “the depths of despair to the heights of hope.”

MacLean also recalled some private time he had with the Ramon family, in the eastern part of Texas before Ilan’s fatal journey. “He told me when he came back from space, he would work toward Middle East peace,” Maclean said.

In addition to the tribute to Ramon at Beth Tikvah, a ceremony was held for a new Torah being written to honour Rabbi Wayne Allen’s 21st anniversary with the congregation.

The new Torah’s writing began on Dec. 2, 2007. It is expected to be completed on Nov. 23 this year. Some 175 families have thus far bought letters, words or lines, said Heather Shapero, the event organizer.