A Jewish ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Universe’?

Sophie Buckingham, 7, has always wanted to be somewhere "inside the solar system" so she could know what it's like to behold the infinity of space – and see stars rushing past her.

While Sophie's address in the Philadelphia suburbs technically resides in the solar system, the abundance of artificial light, even out beyond the city's limits, has normally prevented her from fully admiring the evening's celestial splendor.

But at a program this past Sunday called "Judaism Beyond the Stars," held at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel's Blue Bell campus, artificial light proved no problem, and a group of about 25 kids ages 5 to 10, along with nearly as many parents, were introduced to more stars and constellations than they ever knew existed.

That was thanks to lifelong star-gazer Bob Summerfield, who runs a Melrose Park-based, nonprofit organization called "Astronomy to Go."

The 44-year-old Cheltenham native, who didn't have a Bar Mitzvah but was confirmed at Congregation Rodeph Shalom Suburban, brought along his encyclopedic knowledge of the night sky, along with a 10-foot-high inflatable dome planetarium that was set up in the building's basement, nearly touching the ceiling.

To get inside, kids and their moms and dads had to crawl on their hands and knees through a narrow, inflated tube. Once there, they sat on mats that had been spread across the floor, and gathered around Summerfield and his projector.

He gradually dimmed the lights and challenged the children to find the first three stars in the sky (planets such as Venus don't count because, like the moon, they can sometimes be spotted in the daytime). Once those objects were identified, Summerfield informed the kids that it would be time to officially end a Jewish holiday, or hold a Havdalah service to mark the end of Shabbat.

Summerfield explained that a big part of what Judaism does is connect Jews with their past.

And in a similar vein, the sky helps connect all people to the past – a time before the existence of the watch or clock, when folks used the constellations for functional purposes, like telling time and finding their way.

But looking up is also a whole lot of fun.

"It's like playing a giant game of connect the dots," he offered while using a laser pointer to outline the Big Dipper, Queen Cassiopeia and Scorpius. Then he adjusted the projector to illustrate how the realigned sky would look nearer to 9 p.m.

He ultimately kept the kids up to 3 a.m. – a pretend 3 a.m., at least.

'Moons and Stars'

"I just want them to enjoy the sky," said Summerfield. "And if they remember one or two things, it's a really good science lesson."

Immediately after emerging from the domes, the children began spouting names of distant places; in fact, they seemed to flow from the kids' mouths.

"You could see all the constellations, and he rotated the stars," said 8-year-old Nina Bedrick. "I especially liked Orion."

The group also had a chance to participate in an art project, putting their visions of the heavens down on paper.

Sophie sketched a montage that included the Big Dipper and the North Star.

Jacob Levine drew Uranus, the moon and a shooting star.

After his presentation, Summerfield let the air out of the planetarium, and it slowly sank toward the floor.

"Folks," he stated, "if you've never seen it, this is what a collapsing universe looks like."



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