The Salt of the Earth

September 15, 2009

I will never forget that afternoon, almost seven years ago, when the entire country watched with pride and happiness the live broadcast of the Columbia space shuttle launch with Ilan Ramon aboard. For many of us Israelis, this was a symbolic, glorious moment of our collective success and a national victory. One of us, the salt of the earth, a second generation of holocaust survivors, an honored air force pilot and exceptional human being, became our first Israeli astronaut.


I will never forget the moment when the connection with Columbia was lost and we all watched with horror the ball of fire coming out of space, crashing to the earth. I will never forget the old man, Eliezer Wolferman (Ilan’s father) who was being interviewed live in Channel Two’s television studio while watching his personal and our collective son, perishing and disappearing forever.


I will never forget how a few months later, I went to visit Eliezer in his home near Be’er Sheva. Our Partnership 2000 region of Ofakim/Merchavim decided to commemorate Ilan Ramon by dedicating the theme of our annual parade in his memory. I volunteered to ask Ilan’s father to represent the family in the march. I called him, though I had lots of hesitations. He was very friendly and accommodating, and immediately invited me to come over to his home to tell him everything about our partnership and community. I went there with Eli Ophir, our then partnership director, and we spent an unforgettable evening with him. The old man was sharp, smart, and full of stories. He gave both of us a wonderful Zionist, Jewish history lesson and connected it to the love of the Negev, where he lived most of his adult life. He proved to be the salt of the earth, like his son. It was only when he showed us an emotional (and confidential) movie about Ilan, produced by the Israeli air force that all six eyes of ours couldn’t keep dry. Obviously Eliezer, together with his other son, Gadi, were the guests of honor a few weeks later in our P2K march. Eliezer passed away some three years ago.


I will never forget the few occasions when we, members of UJC MetroWest, visited the Nahalal cemetery. It is a unique, very old graveyard overlooking the beautiful Jezre’el valley. Dr. Motti Zeira, our partner who runs the Midrasha in Oranim, wrote his Ph.D. about the early Zionist pioneers of the first and second Aliyiot, who tried to settle this valley and dealt with their Jewish, Israeli identity issues, along with physical and spiritual challenges.


From time to time Motti takes us on an inspirational visit to an old cemetery, and his stories become real and vivid in front of the graves, the monuments, and our own eyes. One of his favorites is the Nahalal cemetery. He walks us through some of the old graves, then goes to the grave of one of the most famous new Israeli heroes, Moshe Dayan, and then, last but not least, the grave of our first Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon. All are there, gathered together in this small but so symbolic and meaningful cemetery.


I will never forget only three months ago when the entire nation watched with pride and happiness the graduation ceremony of the Israeli air force pilots course. This ceremony is always a big deal here, but the last one was even more remarkable: The honor of excellence was given to the most talented and promising graduate: Asaf Ramon, Ilan’s oldest son, who himself received that same honor some 20 years before. Asaf was 15 when his father perished, and already then he decided that he was going to keep his father’s legacy and follow in his footsteps. His widowed mother, Rona, had to sign a special declaration that she agrees that her son can be drafted into a combat unit. It sounds bizarre but this is the reality and the IDF procedure here. Like many other bereaved families, she signed the document to fulfill her son’s wishes.


I will never forget the picture of President Peres himself with a huge smile, decorating the salt of the earth, Asaf, with his “flying wings,” whispering something, while Rona and some thousand guests in the audience and perhaps millions at home were cheering.


I will never forget yesterday when I heard that an F 16 jet crashed during a training exercise in the Negev and that, 21 years old, Lieutenant Asaf Ramon perished in it. Like most other Israelis, I felt that Asaf was my own son. The way that he and his father before him found their deaths, falling from the beautiful blue sky in a ball of fire, is too incomprehensible to digest.


Today, Asaf was put to rest near his father and other salt of the earth heroes in the old Nahalal cemetery. Not one eye in Israel remained dry during this "biblical tragedy." In his eulogy, President Peres unveiled what he whispered to Asaf during the pilot course graduation. He quoted the eternal biblical words from Genesis 22:12: “Do not lay a hand on the boy.”


I will never forget three generations of Jewish heroes and these salt of the earth human beings: Eliezer, Ilan, and Asaf Ramon. May they rest in peace.


Drishat Shalom,








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