Being an astronomy enthusiast, I like to keep track of the evening sky, meteor showers, planet rotation, and the like. For years I’ve had the wish to travel away from the city to a spot where there is limited light pollution so that I could view the stars and planets under a crisp, clear sky. However, the members of my family who share many of my interests don’t share the same enthusiasm as I have for this particular hobby. Somehow, I finally managed to convince my husband and daughter to join me on a Sky Tour in Makhtesh Ramon, the Ramon Crater - one of the best places in the country for stargazing. One of the great things about living in Israel is that in our tiny country we have a considerable variety of climates, topography, and scenery, all within a short distance. After a quick two-hour drive from our home, we reached the desert.
While the Sky Tour was undoubtedly the highlight of this overnight trip, we found ourselves captivated by the town of Mitzpe Ramon, where we stayed. Mitzpe Ramon, which sits on the edge of the Makhtesh, had once been viewed mainly as a stopover on the way down to Eilat. But the town has seen a renaissance in recent years, and its quaint character definitely enhanced our trip. The first most pleasant surprise was the weather. When I think of the desert, I think of camels, thirst, and unbearable scorching heat. While we did pass a few camels on the road, as well as quite a few road signs of warning to beware of them, the weather was far from what I expected. In the shade it was extremely pleasant and, in the evening, I actually needed a sweater.
After checking into our motel, we went straight to dinner in what seemed to be an industrial area converted into a charming and super laid-back artsy street. The resounding theme of the street was “chill.” All year round at that location, high schools with art programs operate restaurants, a dessert bakery, a second-hand shop, galleries, and cafes. I’m sure the street was bustling the week before our stay, when the Perseid Meteor Shower peaked and 40,000 visitors descended upon the town. But during our visit, the crowd was small. Parking was allowed pretty much anywhere you felt like leaving your car. Pictures were painted on the garage doors, including one of the Baba Sali, a leading Moroccan rabbi known to work miracles through his tefilah. The few who leisurely walked around enjoyed the pleasant live music that filled the air, while a handful of visitors sat on chairs and couches, concert style, in front of the musicians. Diners eating in the outside area of a local restaurant enjoyed the “concert” as well, as did their children, who cheerfully ran back and forth between the restaurant and the mini children’s fair taking place just a few feet away. The fair included juggling lessons, face painting, a clown, and a man on stilts. Everyone seemed to be relaxing in the calm and wholesome ambiance. An intriguing sign hanging in one of the shops stated in Hebrew, “Get ready! The King is in the Field,” a reference to the month of Elul, which is especially conducive to teshuvah and tefilah, as Hashem makes Himself especially close by. I would never have predicted to see such a sign there, which further contributed to the “anything goes” atmosphere.
When it turned dark, we headed towards the Makhtesh, the world’s largest erosion crater, which has been designated as an International Dark-Sky Park due to its lack of light pollution. Visitors from all over the country come down to the Makhtesh to get an unobstructed view of the wonders of the sky. The city of Mitzpe Ramon does their part to enable the best viewing possible by shutting down the lights in the city a few nights every year in August. We drove to our pre-arranged meeting location where we met Ira Machefsky, our Sky Tour guide, and his assistant. There was one other family on our tour whose name was Bergstein. Ira, affectionately known as the Star Man of Mitzpe Ramon, who has been leading these tours for over fifty years, was amused by the first-time occurrence in which he led a tour of just two families with opposite names: Bergstein and Steinberg. Ira has been an astronomy buff ever since he was a child and his passion about the topic is palpable.
We settled ourselves on comfortable chairs, covered ourselves with blankets, and gazed upward as Ira made the heavens come alive. With his sharp laser beam, Ira pointed out the stars, planets, zodiac signs, and constellations. He showed us the Big Dipper and how to use it to locate the North Star. We literally watched Venus set below the horizon. His presentation was informative and entertaining, peppered with little interesting snippets of information. His assistant pointed out a satellite flying overhead, which can at times be difficult to distinguish from an airplane. Ira told us that many years ago the planet of Venus was shot at because it was mistaken for enemy aircraft. He also explained that when we look up at the stars and planets, we are actually looking back in time. It takes time for the light of objects in space to travel and reach the Earth. An astronomical event that happens near the sun takes eight minutes to reach the earth, so we would see it eight minutes after it occurred. If we were to see an exploding star, the supernova event would have happened hundreds of years earlier. Fascinating! Ira’s assistant helped us use the telescopes. We had a spectacular view of the moon, craters, and all. We were actually able to see Saturn and its rings, and Jupiter and its moons! It was truly amazing, magical, awe-inspiring, as well as humbling. We are each a whole world unto ourselves, yet we are but a mere speck in the universe.
The next day we drove around the small town of Mitzpeh Ramon, past Yeshivat “Midbara K’Eden” and then past the Chabad House, a replica of 770, Lubavitch headquarters in Crown Heights. I know there is a replica of 770 standing in Kfar Chabad. But that’s Kfar Chabad, after all! We were definitely did not expect to see such a thing in Mitzpe Ramon. We also stopped at the Visitor’s Center, where guests can learn the processes which led to the creation of the Makhtesh, which is comprised of multicolored sandstone, volcanic rock, and fossils. The Makhtesh has been described as Israel’s very own Grand Canyon, and grand it is. The Visitor’s Center also has a beautiful exhibit and touching videos about Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli astronaut, who was tragically killed in 2003 as the Space Shuttle Columbia reentered the Earth’s atmosphere. Ilan Ramon was born Ilan Wolferman to Holocaust survivors. But as was commonly done at the recommendation of David Ben Gurion, Ilan changed his surname to something more Israeli upon entering the Air Force. He changed his name to Ramon, because the area was one of his favorite places. I can definitely see why,
I was looking forward to getting a tour of the night sky, but our 24-hour getaway ended up being so much more than I expected. I highly recommend the Mitzpe Ramon area to all, not just astronomy lovers.
Suzie (nee Schapiro) Steinberg grew up in Kew Gardens Hills. She works as a social worker and lives with her husband and children in Ramat Beit Shemesh.