It’s been a rallying cry for generations — Am Yisrael Chai! “The Jewish people live!”
Rabbi Leslie Hardman cried out the words two days after the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945. The great Jewish musician Shlomo Carlebach turned it into a famous folk song in the 1960s. It’s an expression of defiance and triumph, of history and the future, of enormous joy and great tragedy.
And now Am Yisrael Chai may walk on the moon. Er, hop, actually.
Two things got me excited in this month’s National Geographic depiction of SpaceIL’s moon lander: the Israeli flag along one of its legs, and Am Yisrael Chai in Hebrew on another. The article describes the current race for Google’s LunarX prize. Twenty million dollars will go to the first one of five privately-funded finalists which launches before the end of this year, lands a spacecraft on the moon’s surface, travels at least 500 meters, and communicates back to Earth with images.
SpaceIL is the nonprofit educational institute currently still in the running for the prize, with a 1,300 pound spacecraft that will be launched in a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. It’s designed to hop rather than drive the 500 meters, so it doesn’t come with a cute little rover to explore the moon like some of the other teams.
Eran Privman, the CEO of SpaceIL, said in National Geographic that he is aiming for the “Apollo effect” of the launch to inspire a generation of Israeli kids to study science and technology, in the way that NASA’s programs in the 1960s and 70s did in America. The project has funding from U.S. casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, amongst others, who is also one of Birthright Israel’s most generous donors.
No one would accuse me of having studied the STEM fields (international relations, Jewish history, and an amazing undergrad course on dinosaurs were more my speed), but I still feel a great sense of pride thinking about Am Yisrael Chai showing up on another world. For thousands of years the Jewish People have not only looked up at the moon, but also based our lives and faith around it. In Episode 2 of my Jew Oughta Know podcast I describe how the lunar-based Jewish calendar informs our conceptions of months, years, holidays, and life cycles.
The moon, then, isn’t just an interesting cosmic rock, but is vitally connected to Jewish life. Landing a craft there feels like more than a scientific and engineering feat. It feels like creating, after over 5,000 years, a physical connection to a fundamental feature of Judaism we haven’t yet touched.
Good luck to Israel and the SpaceIL team!
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© Jason Harris 2017