D.C. man follows a scientific passion south for eclipse viewing

On Aug. 21, Alan Gersch will travel to Clayton, Ga. to watch a total solar eclipse, in which the moon completely obscures the sun. At 2:36 p.m. there will be two and a half minutes of darkness. From Wikipedia.

On Friday, Washington resident Alan Gersch and his family will make the 565-mile journey to Camp Ramah Darom in Clayton, Ga., a choice spot to see the full solar eclipse on Aug. 21.

The upcoming eclipse, when the moon fully covers the sun for two and a half minutes, will be the first time Gersch, who has a Ph.D. in astronomy from the University of Maryland, will see the phenomenon.

“I remember seeing a partial [eclipse] in the mid ’90s in New York,” he said, adding that he has “a vague childhood memory” of viewing an eclipse in the 1970s but doesn’t know if that was full or partial.

A total solar eclipse occurs when the moon orbits the Earth at an angle where it can be seen the moment it crosses in front of the sun, Gersch said. Camp Ramah Darom lies within the east-west trajectory over the United States where the eclipse will be entirely visible.


In contrast, in the Washington area, only a partial eclipse will be visible.

The camp is hosting a “Solar Eclipse Shabbat” to mark the occasion, which will include, among other activities, astronomy-themed Torah talks. Gersch said having a family and a full-time job as a software engineer were constraints that made him initially decide against making the trip. But when his friend, Jewish studies professor Charles Manekin asked Gersch to go in his place to give a talk on Torah and science, the astronomer changed his mind.

Gersch frequently goes out of his way to view events in the sky, such as when the planet Venus crossed in front of the sun in 2012. He also goes stargazing at night whenever he has the chance. The ideal place to watch the sky, he said, is in an open field far from a city.

“You can do [stargazing] any time, but we live in downtown D.C.,” he said. “It’s harder because there’s light pollution, so the farther you can get from the city the better.”

During the weekend, the camp will supply attendees with the glasses needed for eye protection from the sun during an eclipse. These can be purchased for $1-$2 online, Gersch said.

Gersch said he plans to take pictures of the eclipse with his phone. He urges people using a quality camera to use a filter that is designed to protect the lens from the sun’s light.

Washington resident Alan Gersch, back, supervises students at the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital in 2012, hours before they prepare to watch the planet Venus cross in front of the sun. Gersch will travel to Camp Ramah Darom in Clayton, Ga. this weekend to witness the total solar eclipse on Aug. 21. Photo courtesy of Alan Gersch.

“If you have a real serious camera I would look online [for a filter],” he said.

Gersch said he is passionate about the connections between science and religion — to the point of maintaining a blog called AstroRav, in which he discusses how scientific principles relate to passages in the Torah. For example, he notes that light is one of the most basic elements in cosmology, which is similar to how God first creates light in the Torah portion of B’reishit.

Seeing an eclipse, he said, is significant for both scientific and spiritual reasons.

“I appreciate observing natural phenomena, especially astronomical ones,” he said.

“And from a religious point of view I get to experience God’s creation from a scientific point of view.”

One biblical reference to eclipses can be found in the Talmud. A passage in Sukkah 29a states that eclipses signal an “unfavorable period” that can be compared to “a human king who made a feast for his subjects, and placed a lantern before them. When he grew angry with them, he told his servant: Take away the lantern from before them, and place them in darkness!”

Natan Slifkin, an Israeli Orthodox rabbi who is the director of the Biblical Museum of Natural History in Beit Shemesh, wrote a modern-day response to the passage recently on the museum’s website. Slifkin said it is important to recognize periods of darkness in the history of the Earth have not been permanent.

“During these times we should remember that God’s light has not been extinguished; it is merely in a state of concealment,” he wrote. “Just as the sunlight always emerges from its eclipse, so too are all situations of God’s concealment only temporary, destined to be followed by the light of His redemption.”

Another interpretation of eclipses comes from the “Ask the Rabbi” section of Aish.com. The Aish rabbi there points out that the Talmud also says a reason for a solar eclipse is that it is a sign that a great rabbi has died and not been eulogized properly.

Gersch said he views the eclipse more as an exciting event to witness than a doomsday prophecy. But when asked what he thought his reaction to next Monday’s eclipse would be, Gersch said he might not have the same adrenaline rush that he would feel if he were watching the sky by himself:

“I will be trying to explain it and show it off to my children, so I may have a lack of opportunity for personal feeling since I’ll be trying to communicate it to others.”

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