Pozez JCC To Host ‘Space Torah’ Event

Dr. Jeff Hoffman in space during one of his missions. Photo Credited to NASA. 

The Pozez JCC is hosting a screening of a documentary about the first Jewish American astronaut to travel to space and the first person to bring a Torah to space. The event, which will take place on the evening of Feb. 26, will feature a conversation with the astronaut and documentary producer.

The award-winning documentary, “Space Torah,” features the life and career of NASA astronaut and current MIT aerospace engineering professor Dr. Jeff Hoffman, who took part in five space missions, with the most notable being his final mission in 1996, when he made history by taking a Torah to space and recording a ritual with it during Shabbat while in orbit.

Hoffman, who was ironically described by the documentary producer Rachel Raz as being “down-to-earth,” didn’t have his story widely known for decades, only telling the story when he spoke at Jewish events.

That changed dramatically when Raz, an Israeli American Jewish educator, heard Hoffman tell his story in 2017 and saw some of the video he took during that 1996 mission.

“He showed us a video of him unfolding and reading from a Torah in space in 1996. And I was sitting in the crowd, and my brain was racing for a couple of reasons. First of all, this is like a pioneer Jew in space. How come we don’t know about his journey? I felt that it’s not part of Jewish history,” Raz said.

Raz said that she felt compelled to help share this story for several reasons, including the inspiring nature of his American Dream story to all people and the embodiment of the Jewish journey.

“I recognized so many inspiring pieces of his story that I wanted to run and share with educators, with clergy, with families, with children,” Raz said.

There was a slight issue, however, as the incredible video footage of Hoffman in space wasn’t available online – it was saved on his personal computer. That, combined with the fact that Raz had no experience creating films.

Hoffman said that the two ended up meeting after the event and Hoffman agreed to have a professionally done documentary to share his story with the public. They were able to get a team and a producer named Rob Cooper to help produce, edit and direct the documentary in accordance with the vision Raz had for it.

It took until 2020 for the film to be completed and it has since appeared in a number of film festivals across the world and won several awards for documentary filmmaking.

Hoffman’s intriguing story about bringing the first Torah to space is added onto by the fact that he brought Jewish items into space on each of his prior missions as well, as part of his 20 personal items he was allowed to bring.

Hoffman said that the idea for him taking those items to space was due in part to a question from his rabbi and said that it allowed him to bring the spirit of holiness into space. He added that the interaction of religion and space exploration was something that brought him a lot of interest as he explored the concepts during his missions.

“What has always fascinated me has been the juxtaposition. The Jewish heritage of Judaism is a tradition that goes back thousands of years. It’s ancient as well. It’s modernized over the time but it’s a tradition which has been with humanity for thousands of years, whereas spaceflight has always represented the future, where we’re going, and to bring these two parts of my life together for me was significant,” Hoffman said.

The positive and inspirational impact of the film has also been evident from the people who have seen it at screenings or film festivals since it came out. Raz said that it stands out as a positive, uplifting piece of media in a landscape typically filled with such negativity.

“This is like a reminder to people that still in America, Jews are doing excellent, that we can achieve great things. So, people are very thankful for that,” Raz said.

She added that a lot of the audience that views this film is non-Jewish, and that it provides a good educational message to people, giving them some more knowledge of Jewish history and customs that they may not have encountered before.

Hoffman himself also spoke about several positive experiences people have shared with him after they heard his story. He said that while the experiences were all positive, people took different things away from it.

“Some people said that it made them proud as Jews to know that there were Jewish astronauts who cared about their heritage … other people who were there made more personal comments that they’re interested in seeing my personal story. Quite a few people said they found it very moving,” Hoffman said.

Hoffman’s story is also being made into a children’s book as he looks to share the story with a wider audience and increase accessibility.

The film’s next destination is in Northern Virginia at the Pozez JCC, with Hoffman and Raz visiting to answer questions about the film, Jewish values, and of course, Hoffman’s remarkable journey to space, with Torah in hand.

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