They mourned the dead, prayed for those left behind and struggled with news that seven astronauts had died in a fiery explosion, their final moments televised to horrified witnesses around the world.
South Florida religious leaders of all denominations spent yesterday consoling their followers and preparing Sunday services in honor of the space shuttle Columbia and its crew. The events were particularly devastating to local Jewish and Hindu groups who had celebrated the space mission with great pride.
Israeli Air Force Col. Ilan Ramon, 48, had become a hero at home as the first from his country in space. Kalpana Chawla, 41, who came to the United States from India in the 1980s, was making her second trip on the shuttle as a U.S. astronaut.
"The Columbia's loss takes on an even deeper meaning today with a tragedy that has struck all of America as well as all of Israel," said Rabbi Robert P. Frazin of Temple Solel in Hollywood, Broward County, who found out about the accident just before he began his Saturday morning service. During the traditional Jewish memorial prayer for the dead, Frazin delivered the news to about 100 people who sat stunned.
The news also devastated South Florida's Hindu community.
At Hindu Heritage Month celebrations in Davie, Broward County, participants observed a minute of silence in honor of the astronauts. Just a week ago, on India's Republic Day, the same group had spoken proudly of India's history and the nation's contributions, singling out Chawla.
"She certainly inspired a lot of youngsters who are Indian-American. Many of them felt inspired to follow, to go off the beaten path," said Dr. Nandita Shankar, a Davie temple board member. "For any human being to have gone into outer space somehow makes them feel that anything is achievable."
The job for religious leaders today is restoring that feeling of hope while preaching to the faithful. Many leaders promised special prayers.
At St. Gregory Episcopal Church in Boca Raton, Palm Beach County, the Rev. Frederick Masterman said he planned to reflect on yesterday's tragedy during his homily today.
"We're all gifted in various ways," he said. "Some people offer them in their lives and give their lives in offering them. They will give their gifts regardless of the risk. All the people in the shuttle were like that."
Religious leaders interviewed yesterday said they hoped the tragedy would bring people together, rather than highlight their differences.
A Sikh memorial service was to be held today at the temple in Davie. "We believe that all human beings are the same, so our prayers will be for everybody so that all the families can have the peace that God gives them," said Major Pannu at the temple.
While that sentiment was echoed around South Florida, the emotional tug seemed especially deep at local synagogues. For two weeks, Ramon's exploits had been the major topic of conversation here and in Israel, leaders said.
"This was seen as something nice in a time of such sadness," said Rabbi Edwin Goldberg of Temple Judea in Coral Gables, Dade County. "And to watch reports of Israelis taking such pride in this man and what he symbolized - the hope you see on shows like Star Trek, a symbol of something to come. And now that symbol's been taken away."
Lisa J. Huriash, Christy McKerney and Tanya Weinberg write for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.