Astronaut Jeffrey Hoffman traveled 21.5 million miles during five missions in space, and through them all, carried Jewish artifacts with him. One of them is a sterling silver mezuzah from his Space Shuttle Columbia mission in 1996. Last week, the mezuzah was put up for auction through RR Auction house, but it did not meet its expected price of $15,000, and it will be sold privately or at a new auction in the fall. The proceeds of the sale will be donated to the Space Torah Project, a documentary film about Hoffman’s flights and how the Jewish heritage items he carried with him added meaning to his missions. The defining experience was a miniature Torah he brought with him on his fifth and final trip to space in 1996.
“My rabbi had suggested for years that I take a Torah. The problem is, it had to be miniature, but legible,” said Hoffman.
The documentary shows him reading the first verse of Genesis from the Torah while in space. The film goes into his career as an astronaut and the part his Jewish heritage played in his trips high above the Earth.
Since his first flight in 1985, Hoffman took mezuzot with him.
“They’re particularly small and easy to take. I’ve donated mezuzahs both to the Jewish Museum in New York and the National Science Museum in Jerusalem,” said Hoffman, who is now co-director of the Human Systems Lab, which explores future space travel, at MIT.
He also has taken hand-woven tallit, Kiddush cups, menorahs, and a dreidel, which he spoke about spinning and watching float without gravity in the spacecraft.
Educator and author Rachel Raz is thrilled to be working on the documentary because she believes it provides lessons about carrying one’s Jewish heritage wherever one may go. Raz, the director of the Early Childhood Institute at Hebrew College in Newton, is serving as executive producer of the documentary.
The film team interviewed Hoffman at the Museum of Science in Boston and at his home. He spoke about Judaism being traditionally a “traveling religion,” where rituals had to be practiced on the road. Of course, he’s taken that a quantum leap forward.
Raz believes there is much to impart from Hoffman’s journeys. The documentary, which she hopes will be completed by the end of 2019 depending on how successful the fundraising goes, promises to inspire a new generation of Jewish youth. She sees it being shown in synagogues, summer camps, and Jewish film festivals.
While Hoffman was thinking about his Jewish community and what it meant to them when he carried the artifacts into space, Raz said he now views it as an inspiration to Jewish people everywhere.
Raz recalled that Hoffman spoke to her about how he was inspired when his father brought him to a planetarium in New York as a young boy. In addition, she said Hoffman’s third grade teacher was so impressed with his interest in space that she brought in books for him and encouraged him to share them with his friends.
The documentary is intended to motivate not only children, but parents and educators as well to take the time to discover children’s passions.
Hoffman’s flights were in 1985, 1990, 1992, 1993 and 1996. He performed four space walks.
Now age 74, Hoffman has been a professor in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics since 2001. He is director of the Massachusetts Space Grant Consortium, responsible for space-related educational activities. He is deputy principal investigator of an experiment on NASA’s Mars 2020 mission, which will for the first time produce oxygen from extraterrestrial material, a critical step in the future of human space exploration.
In 2007, Hoffman was elected to the US Astronaut Hall of Fame at the Kennedy Space Center in Titusville, Fla.
In 2017, Hoffman and Judith Resnik were inducted into the Jewish-American Hall of Fame at the Jewish Heritage Center of the New England Historic Genealogical Society. Resnik, who tragically died in the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986, was the first, and Hoffman the second, American Jewish astronaut in space. The distinction of being the first Jewish person in space goes to Boris Volynov, a Russian cosmonaut who flew two space missions, the first in 1969.
To learn more about the Space Torah Project, visit spacetorahproject.com.