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NEW YORK, Feb. 4 (JTA)--Yeshiva University this week was covered with signs of Jews coping with the loss of the Columbia space shuttle, and with it, Israel's first astronaut.
Students jammed the university's 1,000-seat auditorium Monday for a memorial to the seven lives lost, fliers blaring "Yeshiva Mourns" decorated buildings and bus stops and talk of the tragedy soured the sweetness inside Grandma's, the campus sandwich and bake shop.
"It's a state of mourning for the whole nation. Our school is no different," said Joseph "J.P." Schwarcz, 18, a Yeshiva freshman.
At the same time, Schwarz was quick to note the distinct status of Israel's representative on board, Ilan Ramon, as a role model for Jews.
"Throughout the whole week, our deans have come into our class and discussed with us how we should be just like Ilan Ramon," he said.
In mourning the tragic flight of the whole Columbia crew, Jews across America are especially touched by the loss of Ramon, whom President Bush eulogized Tuesday along with his six fellow crew members.
And his connection with the shuttle is reaping rewards for Israel and the U.S.-Israel relationship.
Whether Jews saw him as pioneer or peacemaker, most saw him as the best of the Jewish people. They herald his observance of Jewish laws in space, the Jewish artifacts he carried into the ether and his life of integrity and courage.
That sentiment is evident in memorial services across the country and in e-mail and written messages to Ramon's family. `
"He took the hopes and aspirations of all Jews into space with him," said Yehudit Adar, 54, a social worker and dance therapist who visited the Israeli Consulate in New York on Monday to inscribe her words in a black book of condolences for Ramon's family.
"I felt that he represented the possibility of Jewish unity," David Ratzker, 21, a Yeshiva senior, said, noting that the secular Ramon observed some Jewish laws in space to represent Jewry.
Mark Klein, 48, a vocational counselor who also trekked to the consulate to write a message to Ramon's family, echoed the view of so many when he said, "During this time, when Israel really needed a morale boost, for this to happen was just heart wrenching."
But Klein, like many others, is trying to create something positive from the tragedy by planting trees in Israel to honor Ramon's memory.
In a televised conversation with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon from space, Ramon had said, "I call upon every Jew in the world to plant a tree in the land of Israel during the coming year."
Now, the Jewish National Fund is coordinating a massive effort to fulfill Ramon's request.
The JNF received some 1,000 calls for about 3,000 trees on Monday alone, an all-time record of unsolicited calls, according to the group's CEO, Russell Robinson.
The Chabad-Lubavitch movement has determined another way to respond to the catastrophe.
The Chabad Jewish Community Center of the Space Coast in Florida is raising funds for a new Torah to replace the one Ramon brought into space.
The group plans to present the Torah to Ramon's family in time for his son Tal's Bar Mitzvah in April.
The new Torah will ensure that Ramon "will live forever in our lives," said Rabbi Zvi Konikov, the director of the center who advised Ramon how to observe the Sabbath in space.
Rabbis around the country grappled with the tragedy, even as many of them learned of it while leading Shabbat services.
Rabbi Joshua Hammerman of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn., hesitated about sharing the initial, inconclusive reports with his congregants.
"But the shattering truth could not be avoided," Hammerman said this week. ``So we read the Torah, an act of affirmation since a small Torah scroll was also destroyed in the catastrophe."
Rabbi Ron Fish of Congregation Beth El in Norwalk, Conn., was in the middle of the prayer for the sick when someone on the bimah (podium) told him about the shuttle.
"There was silence in the room for about 30 seconds. I didn't know how to react at first," Fish recalled. "We went ahead because Shabbat is about life."
The rabbi said he didn't change his sermon about the weekly Torah portion, Mishpatim.
The portion "is really about the laws of life, how Jewish life, Jewish law and Jewish living is not in the clouds but on Earth. Ilan brought us the connection between the stars and what goes on on the Earth."
At day schools and synagogues across the country, students, too, tried to come to grips with what happened.
From Hillel Academy in Milwaukee to the Hebrew Day School of Montgomery County in Silver Spring, Md., students set up memorials and wrote and emailed letters of condolences to Ramon's family.
At the Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax, Va., students participated in discussions of "what it means to be a symbol of your country and what it means to take risk," said Rabbi Michele Sullum.
The children, she said, were concerned about the astronauts' families and how "extra sad" it was for Ramon's mother as a Holocaust survivor.
The groundswell of emotion in response to Ramon's death has not only been a great inspiration for American Jews.
It also has helped strengthen the bond Americans feel for Israel. `
"Ramon's mission symbolized the close ties between Israel and America, not only strategic and military, but also scientific and technological. He was truly representative of Israel's very best, and he is united in death with America's best today," said Rabbi Richard Margolis, the rabbi for Temple Beth Sholom, a Conservative congregation near the Kennedy Space Center, who was called to NASA to help the grieving families after the shuttle disintegrated. `
"It is the most positive press that Israel has had in two years," said Jennifer Laszlo Mizrahi, a consultant for a project to improve Israel's image in the world.
"They talk about his life on every news channel in America and they point out that he was a part of protecting the world from Saddam Hussein having nuclear weapons. It brings Americans closer to Israel," she said.
Indeed, U.S. Rep Tom Delay (R-Texas) the House majority leader, reinforced that view when he addressed a gathering of the Republican Jewish Coalition in Boca Raton, Fla., on Saturday night.
"At this moment, America and Israel grieve together," said the lawmaker, who returned to the RJC event after flying home to Houston after the shuttle disaster.
"I can think of no two nations that are so connected by so many timeless truths. We are kindred nations and tonight we are siblings in mourning," DeLay said, tears streaming down his face.
He ended by reciting the last two lines of the Mourners Kaddish.
On Tuesday, at a memorial service held at NASA's Mssion Control in Houston, Hebrew prayers led by Capt. Harold Robinson, a U.S. Navy rabbi, opened the solemn ceremony. The memorial was attended by 10,000 to 15,000 people.
Bush, who eulogized each of the astronauts at the ceremony, called Ramon a "patriot" and the "devoted son of a Holocaust survivor who served his country in two wars."
Bush spoke afterward with the families of the astronauts, including Ramon's wife, Rona.
A day after the memorial was held in Houston, NASA officials informed Israeli authorities that Ilan Ramon's remains had been positively identified. The remains are expected to be flown to Israel next week.
In another development Wednesday, a woman in Lousisiana found a piece of fabric that depicted a Star of David. It was believed to have come from Ramon's space suit, according to The Associated Press.
Also on Wednesday, a tribute to Ramon and his fellow astronauts was held in New York, where one of the speakers remembered Ramon's role more than two decades ago in destroying Iraq's nuclear reactor.
At the ceremony at Manhattan's Park East Synagogue, retired Col. Ze'ev Raz, commander of the 1981 Israeli mission that destroyed the reactor, said Ramon's coordination of the planes' fuel supply alowed the mission to return safely.
The chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organiations, Mortimer Zuckerman, later drew a parallel between that mission--which initially earned international condemnation and only much later was praised--and Israel's current fight against terror.
"As time goes on," Israel "will be equally recognized for what it is doing" in the fight against terror, he said.
At the Yeshiva University memorial, a slide show presentation laced with music from the movie Apollo 13 and a tearful Jewish ballad, underscored the American-Israeli connection.
David Weinberg, 21, the Yeshiva junior who created it, imposed his words over images of George Bush and the exploded shuttle: "This mission saw the dreams and hopes of two nations fuse together.''
The Connecticut Jewish Ledger, the Washington Jewish Week, the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle and the Florida Heritage Jewish News contributed to this report.