The Gregorian New Year isn’t celebrated officially in Israel. In fact, the regular workday that is January 1, 2018 falls in the middle of the Jewish month of Tevet, indicated by a full moon. This year, however, that full moon will be a glorious super-moon, close to the earth (the perigee) and appearing about 14 percent bigger and 30% brighter than when at its apogee.
And that makes January 1 a cause for celebration among the many Israeli astronomy buffs.
Modern astronomical observation in Israel got its start among amateurs – in the best sense of the word whose root is “love” – when on May 28, 1951, a group of new immigrants from Germany and Czechoslovakia founded a fellowship whose purpose was “to deepen awareness of astronomy among the Israeli public.”
In 1953, the Israeli Astronomical Association (IAA) became a recognized nonprofit organization under the auspices of then-Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, with the goal of promoting knowledge of astronomy and related sciences in the newly formed State of Israel.
The first order of business was to set up an observatory, initially located in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Talbiya. The Israel Land Administration then allocated a site to the IAA, adjacent to what later would become the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Givat Ram campus, and the Williams Planetarium was inaugurated in 1956.
In 1962, the Planetarium received a quarter-ton telescope. Originally crafted in 1954 as a gift to Albert Einstein by amateur astronomer Zvi Gezri, in recognition of Einstein’s involvement with the Ben Shemen Youth Village, it was put into storage and subsequently forgotten.
In 1967, following the Six Day War, the IAA inaugurated an observatory in Givatayim, considered an optimal location, at 85 meters above sea level on the highest hill in the Gush Dan region. The new location became the center of IAA activity, while the Jerusalem location fell into disuse.
Meanwhile, in 1971, Tel Aviv University — in collaboration with the Smithsonian Institution — established the Florence and George Wise Observatory. Located in the Negev region on the edge of the Ramon Crater, it is Israel’s only professional astronomical observatory.
In 1986, over the objections of both the IAA and the Williams family, Hebrew University took over the Givat Ram Planetarium. A legal battle ensued with the court finally ruling in favor of the university.
In 2008, Einstein’s telescope was discovered in a storage room at the university, refurbished and finally put to use. This past October, it was announced that the abandoned planetarium will be converted into a museum dedicated to Einstein as part of a $5 million project to showcase his personal archives.
IAA is headquartered in Givatayim to this day, where it issues publications, offers educational programs, and runs a lively Facebook page, as well as sponsoring country-wide activities including monthly Star Parties — organized star-gazing trips far from the light-polluted cities.
The vision of IAA’s founders has been realized in the many astronomical institutions and organizations established over the years.
These include the privately owned Bareket Observatory near Modi’in; the Tel-Aviv University Astronomy Club (AstroClub), a public outreach organization operated voluntarily by astrophysics graduate students; the Technion Astronomy Club; the Ilan Ramon Youth Physics Center, named for Israel’s first astronaut (no relation to the Ramon Crater), located at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev; AstroNorth, which organizes star-gazing events in the Galilee and Golan Heights; and others.
First international Dark Sky Park
The Negev desert is star-gazing central. In September last year, the International Dark Sky Association (IDA) named the Ramon Crater Nature Reserve, managed by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA), as the first international Dark Sky Park in the Middle East.
The IDA is the recognized authority on light pollution and is the leading organization combating light pollution worldwide.
The title recognizes sites around the world where the night sky is maintained in its natural state, preserving the unique appearance of the starry night sky for ecological, astronomical and cultural reasons.
INPA won the international recognition after three years of scrutiny and examination by the IDA. So far, only 54 other nature reserves and parks have been awarded this title in 15 countries. Israel’s distinction is the first in the Middle East.
Also in 2017, IDA awarded its Nocturnal Habitat Protection Award to INPA chief ecologist Noam Leader, who initiated lighting guides and policies. “Dr. Leader’s accomplishments have made a significant change in the way nature conservationists manage artificial lighting in a developed country such as Israel,” said IDA Executive Director J. Scott Feierabend.
This IDA recognition defines the western Ramon Crater as an undisturbed core area, and the eastern part of the crater as an area where INPA “allows visitors to enjoy a unique nighttime experience within campgrounds adapted to minimize light pollution, combined with educational content on astronomy and nature at night.”
IAA’s founders would be proud.