One of my earliest childhood memories of growing up was watching the Jewish midshipmen march the few blocks from the U.S. Naval Academy to the only shul in town every Sunday morning for services.
Until the Supreme Court ruled it illegal years later, weekly religious attendance at the U.S. service academies Army, Navy and Air Force was compulsory for all.
The Commodore Uriah P. Levy Center And Jewish Chapel
And it was quite a sight for a youngster to see the Middies in their uniforms black and gold in fall and winter, white in spring and summer stepping smartly into shul, where my Dad, the congregational rabbi and civilian chaplain, greeted them and conducted special weekly services for 38 years. For all that time my father tended not only to the spiritual needs of these young men (and later, young women), but was a mentor, adviser, and friend, often inviting them to our house for home-cooked meals and providing a sense of normal life to college-age students far from home.
On a Sunday last month, my wife and I were in Annapolis to join my mother in attending the dedication of a milestone in American Jewish history, the first Jewish chapel to be built on the grounds of the Academy. (Jewish services in recent years had been held in various non-descript rooms on the Academy grounds or at local synagogues.)
The three-story new building is named for Commodore Uriah P. Levy, a hero of the War of 1812 who was among the first Jewish career Naval officers and, during a 50-year tenure in the Navy, endured severe anti-Semitism he was court-martialed and exonerated six times while maintaining a deep religious faith. It was Levy who abolished the practice of flogging in the Navy and who called for choosing officers based on their ability rather than their religion, ethnicity or social rank.
The new building, in addition to the chapel, houses a fellowship hall, meeting and study rooms, a media center, and a learning center where all of the Brigade's 4,200 students will receive instruction in moral character and religious tolerance.
Most of the funds for the $8 million structure were raised by Friends of the Jewish Chapel, a nonprofit group founded in 1994 that included Jewish graduates of the Academy, though only about 10 percent of the 3,000 donors from around the country were alumni.
The chapel itself is a gem. It features a dome similar to that of Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's Virginia home that Levy helped renovate and restore, and has 410 seats on two levels. It includes a 45-foot high wall made of Jerusalem stone, inspired by the Western Wall, and wire mesh scrims high above the congregation that give the effect of billowing sails, with natural light shining down from the ceiling.
More than 1,500 Naval and civilian dignitaries and other invited guests witnessed the official dedication on a hot, sunny afternoon, the culmination of a weekend of festivities and special services, which included the presentation of a Torah from the Israeli Navy to the new chapel, the first U.S. military building in the world to feature a Jewish star on its exterior.
The speakers included Adm. Michael Mullen, chief of Naval Operations, as well as the superintendent of the Academy, several chaplains, and Sen. John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, all of whom took note of the "historic" moment as a sign of enhanced religious freedom at the Academy.
It wasn't always so. Long after Uriah P. Levy was almost drummed out of the Navy because of his religion, my Dad would counsel Jewish Middies facing varying degrees of anti-Semitism at the Academy. And while there were no official quotas, the log he kept of the Jewish students from the mid-1940s to the early 1980s always had 40 names, plus or minus one or two, about 1 percent of the school. (There are now 120 Jewish students at the Academy.)
But this Sunday afternoon was a day to marvel at how far the American Jewish dream has come at the Naval Academy, and I particularly enjoyed hearing the 80-voice Navy Glee Club sing "Adon Olam" in a flawless Hebrew. They also sang "America," "Shenandoah," and the always stirring Navy Hymn ("O hear us when we cry to thee, for those in peril on the sea").
As much as I was touched by the dedication, and by meeting gray-haired gentlemen from the Class of '52, and '55 and subsequent years who came over to say hello and recall what a skinny little kid I was back then, my mother was moved even more to be remembered all these years later for her warmth and hospitality. With her unflagging memory, she recalled the names of those who greeted her in her well-deserved spot in the VIP section, and relished the memories they shared of my father, gone 20 years now, and the profound impact he had on their lives.
After the ceremonies were over, we joined the throngs touring the new facility, and were directed to a quiet spot on the second floor of the chapel. There we found a marble stone listing the names of several "Visionaries and Founders," including my dad, Rabbi Morris D. Rosenblatt, and the inscription from Exodus 25:8: "And let them make me a sanctuary and I will dwell among them."
We left the Academy that day feeling comforted that my dad's name is now memorialized in a chapel that will serve future Naval officers and visitors for generations, having been reminded that his acts of kindness are still remembered by so many, decades after their years at Annapolis.
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