All eyes on the sky

Students and parents check out the total solar eclipse Monday at Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School, which was located in the path of totality. Mirowitz celebrated the solar eclipse ‘through a Jewish lens,’ with music by Mirowitz dad Rick Recht, and Jewish and secular eclipse learning. For a gallery of images from the event, visit stljewishlight.com/multimedia.  Photo: Bill Motchan

By Eric Berger, Staff Writer

In the weeks leading up to the total eclipse Monday, Dr. Jay Pepose, an ophthalmologist, saw a sliver of the worst of humanity. 

He said more than 50 people brought in glasses to his office that were billed online as being safe to use to look at the sun during an eclipse. 

“We were just shocked at some of the glasses that we could tell just in the office were fake; they let all the light in,” said Pepose, who belongs to Nusach Hari B’nai Zion. “It’s just amazing that to make a dollar that people would do something that could make people lose their sight forever.”

Amazon recalled an undisclosed number of eclipse glasses after determining that the makers had forged certification labels.

But on Monday afternoon, Pepose got a glimpse of the “miraculous” side of things, he said.

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As he looked up from outside his office in Chesterfield, Pepose thought about “how I am able to see things everyday that I take for granted and all these people take for granted — until they lose it and come and start to appreciate all the things that God gave them. And then I also [thought] of the enormity of God’s creation and how even when the sun is 96 percent covered, that little sliver is still enough to heat the world,” he said.

Pepose was one among many Jews who along with the rest of St. Louis gathered at different viewing locations in southern and western parts of the city and county, which were under the path of totality, when the sun was entirely covered by the moon.

“People who have seen partial versus total say the difference is just enormous,” said Martin Israel, a Washington University astrophysicist. “One metaphor I have heard is, ‘Picture yourself outside a fine restaurant breathing in and enjoying the wonderful aroma. That’s pretty nice, but think about being inside having dinner. That’s very different and much better.’ That’s the difference, people say, between total and partial.”

The last time there was a total eclipse in the continental United States was in 1979 – or almost as long as the Jews were wandering in the desert. 

Israel and his family had traveled to Hawaii to see a total eclipse in 1991. The forecast called for a 90 percent chance of clear skies on the day of the event. It didn’t work out that way. 

It “was a completely overcast, rainy, dark day. It got a little bit darker for a few minutes and then it wasn’t quite so dark. That’s not really seeing what you want to see,” said Israel, a member of Kol Rinah.

On Monday, as people stood under temperatures in the mid-90s, Israel cooled their fears about possible eye damage from having perhaps, maybe, probably not, but maybe, accidentally tilted their heads up for a split-second towards the sun, sans glasses.

The shrinking sun created crescent moon shadows around the asphalt. Among the 15 people there, viewers shifted back and forth from shade to open space to periodically check how much further the moon had crept out. Then the daylight gained a dusky haze and the temperature slowly started to cool. When the lights went out, Israel gave the OK to remove the glasses and look up. Those of us there felt as though we were inside a dark, cool container with a diamond-ringed cork sealing us off from the light. 

From the parking lot, we could see Venus to the west and three-quarters of a sunset, the rest of it blocked by trees. And then after what felt like the time it takes to button up a shirt and tie one shoe, the light reemerged and the cicadas went quiet. Israel told the group to put their glasses back on. (At that location, it was forecast that the totality would last for a little more than a minute, but it didn’t seem that long.)

“I have read about total eclipses; I have seen partial eclipses, and I have heard people talk about seeing a total eclipse, but the experience of being in it and having the sky darken and the stars come out or having the bright planets come out, it’s so much better to experience it than read about. I’m really glad that the weather cooperated,” said Israel, who watched with his wife and son.

At Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School, more than 500 people from throughout the Jewish community listened to Jewish musician Rick Recht perform “Hallelujah,” “Oseh Shalom” and other songs on a stage in front of the entrance. They looked at the eclipse “through a Jewish lens.”

Rick Schmidt, a science teacher, asked Noah Sentnor and his eighth-grade classmates to record the temperature every 15 minutes. Just before totality, Rabbi Scott Slarskey, director of Jewish life at Mirowitz, led students in a blessing praising God for performing acts of creation.

Sentnor said it was one of the few things that have gotten him excited in science. Hayley Lerner, a seventh-grade student, described it as “one of the highlights of my life.”

In addition to temperature, students wrote down observations about crickets and cicadas, Schmidt said. 

“They were doing real science, which is our ultimate goal — to have them think like scientists and act like scientists,” said Schmidt. 

On the other side of the moon, Slarskey said he wanted students to think about the traditional morning prayers that recognize God as “the shaper of light and creator of darkness.”

He spoke about recent rhetoric calling for “domination of light over dark or white people over people of color.”

“When we recite this daily blessing, we recognize darkness not simply as a lack of light. Darkness is not evil… The darkness of today’s solar eclipse poses us no physical or spiritual threat,” Slarskey said.

People from all over the world came to Missouri to see the eclipse. Until a few days before the eclipse, Barbara Land wasn’t sure she was going to come out from her apartment at Crown Center for Senior Living in University City. 

“Everyone was talking about it, and I thought, ‘Well, I’ll go see what it’s all about.’ And it was spectacular. I was so pleasantly surprised,” said Land, a retired sales person and office manager for a company that sold children’s products to museum gift shops. 

As totality hit, a woman next to her said “something like, ‘Jesus is coming.’ ” Land recalled.

Land jokingly said to her, “No, we’re Jewish around here.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Martin Israel brought a telescope to Plaza Frontenac. It was brought by Kim Anderson.