© St. Petersburg Times, published February 2, 2003
At St. Petersburg's Temple Beth-El on Saturday, Rabbi Michael Torop was nearing the end of the morning's service.
He called out the names of the recently departed. He sought prayers for those who had died on this day in years past. Then he asked if anyone in the congregation had special requests for the memorial prayers.
"A member who had, I guess, heard the news just before arriving at 9:30, stood up and announced that the shuttle had exploded," Torop recalled. "There was an audible gasp. For a moment, we all just kind of stood there in stunned silence. Then we carried on with the prayer."
For Torop and other Jews locally and around the world, this shuttle flight carried a special significance. Ilan Ramon, a colonel in Israel's air force, was its first citizen to fly into space.
He was aboard Columbia.
"As Jews in America, we feel a special attachment to Israel," Torop said. "It represents so much of our hopes and dreams. So this was a really significant event for us."
Torop and others had followed news of the mission closely. He listened to the news on National Public Radio as he drove to the temple Saturday morning and heard that all was well as the shuttle prepared to re-enter Earth's atmosphere before landing at Kennedy Space Center.
A short time later, Rabbi Gary Klein was at home getting ready for the morning service at Temple Ahavat Shalom in Palm Harbor when he heard that the mission had gone terribly wrong.
When he arrived, some knew about the tragedy. News began to spread through the temple.
"There was a pall over the place," Klein said after the service. "Everyone was sad, and the adults were talking about it to each other, those who knew about it. . . . There was a sense of shock. I even saw some tears."
After services, everyone who stopped by the synagogue was talking about the tragedy, Klein said. Klein planned to ask his congregation to pray for the astronauts and their families during the synagogue's evening service. The calamity also will be addressed today at a service with prayer, a moment of silence and some discussion, he said.
Klein said Ramon's participation in Columbia's 28th mission "was another expression of the beautiful alliance that exists between Israel and the United States. Anytime we see these two countries that we love so much working together to enhance the good of all mankind, as they certainly were doing through the shuttle mission, it brings us joy.
"We are very saddened, but not because there was an Israeli on board. This is a human tragedy. We grieve over the death of every crew member. It's a sad day."
For Torop, like others, the news of Columbia's loss made him think back to the explosion of shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986. Judith Resnik, granddaughter of Jewish Russian immigrants, was on board Challenger, and Torop had followed that mission with a special interest, too.
"I remember there was the same double poignancy then, too," Torop said. "While we obviously grieve with the rest of America for all the astronauts, we mourn (Ramon's) loss especially."