A couple of weeks ago I was guiding a group of American high school seniors touring Israel on the “Write On for Israel” mission. Due to the inclement weather almost every day changes had to be made to our itinerary. The most dramatic being that we were unable to spend our Shabbat in Jerusalem as planned because of the closed roads and snowstorm so we relocated to the sleepy town of Mitzpe Ramon in the middle of the Negev desert.

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“White Mizpe Ramon.”  (Photo: (c) T. Book, 2015)

The awe-inspiring scenery for which the town is justifiably well known was not apparent as, unbelievably, the desert turned white in a snowstorm! As all the roads to and from Mizpeh Ramon were closed because of flash flooding and ice (!) we were left to entertain ourselves in Mitzpeh Ramon. Our first stop, after battling through a snowstorm on the edge of the crater, was the newly refurbished and redesigned visitors center in Mizpeh Ramon, where there is a beautifully organised state-of-the-art exhibition on Ilan and Asaf Ramon z”l, in addition to fantastic exhibitions and AV on the Machtesh itself.

At the beginning of the exhibition there is a juxtaposed photograph of Ilan and Asaf both receiving their honour cadets’ award at the conclusion of the IAF pilot training course, separated by a generation. The photo has a quote from Asaf Ramon, who was a faithful son of an admired hero. This is what Asaf said on receiving his IAF pilot’s wings:

I am fulfilling a childhood dream. From dream to reality…what would dad say? Proud, happy, a second-generation graduation with honours from the pilot’s course. This is my high point in my relation to him…it’s an achievement like climbing an unconquered summit. Our parents gave us a personal example of how to achieve an appropriate balance between the goal and the path.”

ilan and asaf

As much as every Israeli parent would love to see their children grow up and not have to don a uniform at the age of eighteen — that is our reality. Rona Ramon, Ilan’s widow and Asaf’s mother, when interviewed after Asaf’s untimely death and asked if she regretted signing the papers giving Asaf permission to enter the Air Force’s prestigious Pilot training program, replied that they had raised their children to be proud Israelis and to reach for the sky and follow their dreams; to be all that they could be. Thank God that we can protect ourselves, and Jews throughout the world. We all know the consequences of not being in charge of our own destiny and relying on other peoples for pity.

As the exhibition progressed we saw footage of the Shuttle and Ilan talking to his wife and their four children from space. The scenes were loving and made all the more bitter-sweet by our knowledge that these were the last times they would speak to each other in this world.

Ilan Ramon’s mission symbolised that Israel can go anywhere. He reminded us that we have revived our language, made the desert bloom, rebuilt our homeland, ingathered our exiles, have the ability to defend our homeland and protect Jews worldwide and we continue to reach for the stars. In his address to Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, from the Shuttle Columbia in space, he said:

I think we have a great people in Israel, and we have to maintain our Jewish heritage. I think it’s very important to preserve our historical and religious traditions.” He added that his mission symbolised, “more than anything the ability of the Jewish people to survive anything, including horrible periods, and go from the darkest days to days of hope and faith in the future.”

I was moved to great emotion by the words of Ilan and Asaf. Asaf’s pledge to try and be like his father meant that he would do everything, with all of his heart, soul and might for the Jewish people and the State of Israel. Let us be grateful for those boys and girls, and the values on which they were educated, who give the best years of their life, and sometimes their very lives, and are the people who step forward to keep our Zionist dream alive. May Ilan’s memory and that of his son Assaf, who was killed in an Air Force training accident following in his fathers’ path, be for a blessing and an example to us all.