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Astronaut in Space for Passover Remembers a Fallen Israeli Hero

As Jews around the world prepare for Passover, the festival of freedom, one adventurous soul is experiencing emancipation in a most literal fashion.

In his new abode aboard the International Space Station, NASA astronaut Garrett Reisman has slipped the bonds of gravity and won’t return to Earth’s shackles for approximately two months.

Reisman, 40, a mechanical engineer from Parsippany, N.J., is the first Jewish astronaut to live on the orbital outpost, a multinational complex that has been under construction for 10 years.

For this Passover, living in weightlessness will require adaptation on his part. For example, matzah is out — the crumbs would be uncontainable.

Shortly before Reisman launched aboard the shuttle Endeavour March 11 from the John F. Kennedy Space Center, he was asked about spending Passover in space.

“I haven’t really thought that much about that,” he said.

Reisman did spend time planning how to honor Israel’s first astronaut, Ilan Ramon, who died in the 2003 shuttle Columbia disaster.

Following the tragedy, Reisman was given the choice of helping the investigation or providing emotional support to Ramon’s family. Reisman chose the latter.

“It was so incredibly tragic,” he told The Jerusalem Post during a visit to Israel. “Ilan had a great sense of humor and worked very hard to represent not only Israel but every Jew in the world.”

When he was tapped for a space mission of his own, Reisman asked Ramon’s widow, Rona, if there was anything she would like him to take into space.

“Ilan flew a copy of the Israeli Declaration of Independence,” Reisman told JTA in a preflight interview. “It was a scroll and he kind of played with it in orbit, and they have video of that. She gave me another copy so I can kind of have the same experience with it up in orbit, and then I intend to return it to her when I get back.”

Reisman also is flying a cloth with the symbol of the State of Israel signed by President Shimon Peres, as well as a necklace blessed by a Buddhist priest and a set of rosary beads.

“I pretty much have all my major religions covered,” he joked.

Reisman’s Passover in space will be spent getting to know two new crewmates, Russians Sergey Volkov and Oleg Kononenko. The cosmonauts will replace space station commander Peggy Whitson and flight engineer Yuri Malenchenko, who depart on April 19, the first night of Passover.

Fortunately for Reisman, his Russian is stronger than his Hebrew — he made it through cosmonaut training without a translator and took his exams in Russian as well.

But his Jewish heritage comes through, too. When one of his shuttle Endeavour colleagues asked about the camera view during a spacewalk last month, Reisman quipped, “The camera work is great. We’re going to have you shoot my cousin’s bar mitzvah.”

Soon the space station will have a more permanent mark of Jewish contributions to space exploration: Reisman’s replacement, Jewish astronaut Gregory Chamitoff, is bringing two mezuzot.

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