The lyrics of the Frank Sinatra classic resonated throughout the Jewish world this February 2019 as Israel soared to the heavens –to the moon and amongst the stars at the Oscars
By David E. Kaplan
It was that kind of week in Israel.
It began with the news headline:
ISRAELI SPACECRAFT LAUNCHES, BERESHEET HEADS INTO ORBIT TOWARDS THE MOON
“All I can say is farewell Beresheet,” said an emotional South African-born Morris Kahn, chairman of SpaceIL, who donated more than $40 million to the project. “Our hopes are with you, make us proud.”
Kahn, who hails from Benoni in South Africa where he had been a member of the socialist Zionist youth movement Habonim, made Aliyah (immigration to Israel) in 1956 to kibbutz Tzora.
From starting out manufacturing bicycles at a factory in Beit Shemesh in partnership with kibbutz Tzora, Kahn’s trajectory soared establishing companies that grew into commercial behemoths such as Golden Pages Israel, Amdocs, the Aurec Group and Coral World and is now reaching out to the heavens.
A former underwater diver whose Coral World International, established aquariums around the world from his first in 1978 in Eilat, Israel to Maui, Hawaii; Perth, Australia; St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands; Coral Island Nassau, The Bahamas; Oceanworld in Manly, Australia and elsewhere.
Transitioning his GPS, Kahn recalibrated his sights from below to above – from the deep depths of the earth’s sea to outer space.
Over The Moon
Israelis of all ages were wound-up at the countdown as the country’s non-profit organisation SpaceIL launched its spacecraft from Florida’s Cape Canaveral on board a Falcon 9 rocket, in a bid to become only the fourth country to make a soft landing on the moon.
Weighing in at 1,300 pounds and standing approximately five feet tall, the unmanned craft, began an approximate seven-week journey to the moon, from where it will send back images of the rocky surface and conduct experiments on the lunar magnetic field.
All of Israel stands animatedly behind this project and was involved even in choosing the name of the spacecraft.
A public vote was conducted on the SpaceIL’s facebook page, and ‘Beresheet’ – a reference to the first words of the Bible in Hebrew: “In the beginning” – won the most votes.
Apart from the technical support from Israel Space Agency, Israel Aerospace Industries, Rafael Systems and Elbit Systems, SpaceIL was also supported by some of Israel’s top universities, including the Technion, Tel Aviv University (TAU), Weizmann Institute of Science and Ben Gurion University of the Negev (BGU). Most of the multitude of people associated with SpaceIL are volunteers – including 250,000 students at schools across the country.
For decades, the moon was the exclusive domain of the superpowers. The Soviet Union landed Luna 2 on the Earth’s nearest neighbour in 1959. Three years later, the United States landed Ranger 4 on the moon and it would take nearly another 50 years for a third country to execute a soft moon landing, when China’s Chang’e 3 did so in 2013.
Joining the elite and exclusive club of Russia, USA and China, Israel is by far the smallest country. It would also become the first private enterprise to make a controlled landing on the moon, with the smallest spacecraft to do it, and by far the least expensive. The total cost of the programme, raised from private donations amounted to $100 million, a small fraction of the billions of dollars invested in the US space program.
SpaceIL signed with another former South African, Pretoria-born Elon Musk, whose SpaceX launched the Israeli craft on board a Falcon 9 rocket. Beresheet will travel approximately four million miles on its journey, circling the earth multiple times to gain speed before it slingshots toward the moon. It is scheduled to land on April 11.
One “bicycle man” can feel truly proud!
“This mission that we were talking about was really a ‘mission impossible’,” Kahn told local media.
“The only thing is, I didn’t think it was impossible, and the three engineers that started this project didn’t think it was impossible, and the way Israel thinks, nothing is impossible.”
The three engineers Kahn refers to are Yariv Bash, a former electronics and computer engineer in the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (IDC) and currently Co-founder and CEO of Flytrex, Kfir Darmari, a computer Networking lecturer and entrepreneur, and Jonathan Winetraub, formally a satellite system engineer at Israel Aerospace Industries and currently a biophysics PhD candidate at Stanford.
It may come as a surprise but Israel’s journey to the moon was hatched in a pub. Some ten years ago, a younger Bash, Damari and Winetraub were at the only bar in Holon, a small town just south of Tel Aviv.
As the night wore on, the future space engineer, cyber security expert and drone maker, came up with a daring plan to build a spacecraft that could land on the moon. “As the alcohol level in our blood rose, we got more and more determined to do this,” Winetraub recalled during an interview with local media. “And it never faded away.”
Nearly a decade later, their alcohol-infused idea is making history.
From Holy Land to Hollywood
While it is the ‘dream’ of every film producer, director, actor, screenplay and musical score writer, costume and set designer to win an Oscar, this year the sense was that Israel was literally ‘out of the picture’. That was until the following morning after the 91st Academy Award ceremony, I saw on my Facebook:
“And the Oscar goes to … WIZO!”
What on “earth” – getting now away from the “moon” – did this mean?
First of all, WIZO – for those who do not know – stands for Women’s International Zionist Organization, which was founded in 1920 in direct response to the needs of women and children in what was still then Palestine. With branches all over the world, including South Africa where my mother was an active volunteer, begged the question:
What did WIZO have to do with the Oscars?
Reading further, it turned out that Israeli filmmaker Guy Nattiv, who won the Academy Award in Los Angeles for his short film “Skin” – a bio-drama set in the United States about a neo-Nazi skinhead and his son – is a proud graduate of the WIZO Tzarfat (France) Arts School in Tel Aviv, an iconic high school sponsored by WIZO France . Graduates of the school include world famous artist Nir Hod, Israeli actress Dafna Rechter, South African fashion designer, Chantal Abro and Chairperson of WIZO in the United Kingdom, Ronit Ribak Madari.
Nattiv, who grew up in Israel and now lives in Los Angeles, co-wrote “Skin” with fellow Israeli Sharon Maymon and produced it with his wife Jaime Ray Newman. The film deals with a hate crime and its ramifications from the point of view of two children, one white and the other black.
“I moved here five years ago from Israel,” Nattiv began his acceptance speech before adding in Hebrew, “Good Night, Israel.”
Excited and emotional he stood with his wife and continued:
“My grandparents are Holocaust survivors. The bigotry that they experienced in the Holocaust, we see that everywhere today—in America and in Europe. This film is about education; it’s about teaching your kids a better way.”
Adding, Newman said that she and her husband “dedicate this to our five-month-old baby who’s sitting at home with my parents watching this. We hope that you grow up in a world where these things don’t happen, because people learn to love and accept each other.”
Congratulations came in from Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin who told Nattiv, “…the film is a gift for our children and grandchildren, and for the future that we want for them so they can fulfill their dreams. Proud to be lsraeli. Mazel Tov!”
And how fitting being a graduate of a WIZO school in Tel Aviv, for World WIZO Chairperson Prof. Rivka Lazovsky adding to the long list of congratulations from Israel with:
“Mazal Tov, Guy! This is yet another shining example of WIZO pride. You, and thousands of WIZO graduates over the years taken what you have learned at WIZO and used it to create a better world.”
February 2019, recognises not only Israel’s ‘dreams’ for a “better world” but its pursuit thereof, whether to land a spacecraft on the moon or an Oscar for a movie that fights racism and proclaims love and acceptance.
For those who watched the launch of Beresheet and heard the words, “We have a lift off…” it was a portent of Israel’s destiny.
Contemplating a future Jewish state over 120 years ago Theodore Herzl said, “If you will it, it is no dream…”.
From his iconic concerned look on the balcony of the Hotel Les Trois Rois in Basel, Switzerland, 1897, Herzl can look down today from his ‘celestial’ perch at his ‘state’ about to become the fourth nation to land on the moon, and smile.