Herbert J. Cohen

Kosher Movies: Apollo 13

In reflecting on my career as a high school principal, I recall many board meetings where a few board members would panic if the enrollment did not go up every year. That statistic alone was the acid test, and a low enrollment number on any given year would be the catalyst for extensive discussions about what was wrong with the school and what we needed to do to fix it.

Fortunately, most board members took the long view and saw the inherent complexity and difficulty of establishing a Jewish day high school in a city that never had one. Thankfully, they supported me over the years in building Yeshiva High School of Atlanta, now known as Yeshiva Atlanta.

Panic in the face of adversity is not a good response, and I was reminded of this truth as I watched Apollo 13, a classic film about one of America’s early space flights in 1969.

“Life is not a straight line,” a friend once told me when I was dealing with a lot of things that were going wrong. The key is to stay focused at moments of crisis. Rather than lose one’s cool, concentrate on how to solve the problem.

The tag line for the film is ‘Houston, we have a problem,” and they do have a serious problem.

After months of preparation, the crew led by Commander Jim Lovell and assisted by Fred Haise and Ken Mattingly, is scheduled to fly to the moon. Two days before the launch, Mattingly is compelled to withdraw from the mission because he has been exposed to measles and he has never had them before. The possibility that he could become ill during a crucial part of the flight disqualifies him; and Jack Swigert, an astronaut who has been out of the loop for many weeks, is asked to fill in for Mattingly. Lovell decides to accept the substitute rather than wait for another turn to fly to the moon.

The problem is compounded once the astronauts leave earth. While in flight, Jack Swigert performs the routine procedure of stirring the oxygen tanks, and the oxygen tanks explode causing a mechanical failure. Now the mission is not to land on the moon, but to get home safely.

The two characters who stay focused and don’t lose their cool are Jim Lovell and Flight Director Gene Kranz at Mission Control in Houston. Aiding them is Ken Mattingly who simulates what is going on in the space capsule in order to give the Apollo crew the best advice to stay alive. These three men, very bright and who fully identify with the Apollo crew, think creatively to come up with solutions that will enable the men to re-enter earth’s atmosphere and arrive home safely.

The Bible is filled with examples of people who, when faced with negativity and bad karma, rise above the problem and find a way to succeed. Joseph, son of Jacob, is one role model. According to a Midrash, he is left in a snake-filled pit by his brothers. He then is sold as a slave in Egypt, and later finds himself in prison where he languishes for a number of years. During all that time, he does not give up and surrender to his environment. Instead, he finds a way to survive and eventually he is catapulted to the position of viceroy of Egypt. He does not look at the present dark moment as forever. Rather he sees beyond it. He knows he has a mission, and in his own quiet and deliberate way works to actualize a bright future.

Apollo 13 affirms that same message. When things go awry, do not collapse. Instead, analyze the situation and develop a strategy for success.

About the Author
Originally from Mt. Vernon, New York, Herbert J. Cohen served in the pulpit rabbinate in Atlanta at the beginning of his career. After six years, he moved into the educational rabbinate and served for 23 years as Principal of Yeshiva High School of Atlanta. In 2010, he and his wife came on aliyah to Israel. His latest book, published by Urim Publishers, is "Kosher Movies: A Film Critic Discovers Life Lessons at the Cinema." He may be reached at
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