Campaign under way to build Jewish chapel at the Naval Academy

Posted: Friday, December 07, 2001

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) -- Before Jewish midshipmen gather for Friday evening services, Rabbi Irving Elson makes sure the cross is moved and stored away out of sight.

A few other adjustments, and the All Faiths Chapel at the Naval Academy is transformed into a synagogue for the roughly 80 Jewish midshipmen in the 4,000-member brigade at Annapolis.

Unlike students of their faith at West Point and the Air Force Academy, Jews at the Naval Academy have no religious home of their own.

They have to make do with a small, interfaith chapel used for other religious events, including daily Catholic masses. Hanukkah will be observed there for eight nights starting Sunday, with a menorah lighting in the chapel.

Soon, however, Jewish midshipmen will soon have their own house of worship. A campaign led by a group called Friends of the Jewish Chapel is well on the way to raising $10 million in private funds to put the Naval Academy on equal footing with the other major service academies.

Organizers hope that Jewish students in the class of 2005 will be able to worship in the Commodore Uriah P. Levy Center and Jewish Chapel before they graduate.

''It would be a place we could call our own,'' said Rick Parker, a Jewish midshipman from Alexandria, Va. ''Right now, we're sort of nomadic. We're not guaranteed space all the time.''

When the 120-seat chapel is not big enough, like at High Holy Days, services are moved to a cavernous adjoining meeting room. ''It's hardly a comfortable place to meet. It's like going to a town hall,'' Parker said.

Jewish students don't feel comfortable using the academy's main chapel, which has a cross at one end and a statue of Jesus Christ at the other. ''I think people don't realize how Christian the main chapel is,'' Elson said.

The dream of a Jewish chapel, which has existed for years, took a big step toward reality in 1999 when then-Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig signed a memorandum of agreement giving the military's seal of approval and allowing fund raising to begin in earnest.

Friends of the Jewish Chapel needs $6 million to construct and equip the building, $1.5 million for a maintenance endowment and $2.5 million to pay operating costs and underwrite educational and cultural programs.

Donors have pledged about 55 percent of the money, said David Hoffberger, director of administration for the group. He is confident that the rest of the money will be raised in time for work to begin in the spring of 2003. Construction is expected to take up to two years to complete.

The building, to be controlled by the academy, is envisioned by supporters as more than a place for Jewish midshipmen to worship. One half of the three-story structure will include meeting rooms, a kosher kitchen and places where all midshipmen can go to read, relax and study.

''It will be a facility to teach religious freedom, tolerance, ethics and morals,'' said Abe Wasserberger, executive vice president of Friends of the Jewish Chapel. ''The entire brigade of midshipmen will have use of the facility.''

Elson, a chaplain and Navy commander, sees the chapel as a testament to the contributions made by Jewish sailors and officers since the earliest days of the Navy, accomplishments embodied by the man for whom the building is to be named.

''Uriah Levy is the archetypical role model for our Jewish midshipmen,'' Elson said. ''He was a man of honor. He was proud of being Jewish.''

Levy joined the Navy during the war of 1812 and eventually became a commodore, at that time the Navy's highest rank. He was court-martialed six times -- a victim of anti-Semitism his supporters say -- and was reinstated each time.

Stories of his exploits abound, including one instance when the King of Spain reputedly offered him a commission in the Spanish Navy which he turned down.

''He said, 'I'd rather be a cabin boy on a United States Navy ship than serve as an admiral in your Navy,''' Wasserberger said.

Levy was a great admirer of Thomas Jefferson and, when Jefferson's family was forced to sell Monticello, he purchased the former president's home so it could be preserved for future generations of Americans. Levy also commissioned the statue of Jefferson that stands in the U.S. capitol.

Jews have attended the academy for more than a century, although not in great numbers, Elson said.

For years, they, like all midshipmen, Christian or not, had to attend a Christian service in the main chapel. That lasted until the 1930s, when they were allowed to march in a group from the academy to a nearby synagogue to worship.

''It was on Sunday, and special services were held for the midshipmen followed by a food and fellowship meeting,'' Elson said. ''The ladies of the sisterhood would bring food and their daughters.''

When the synagogue moved out of town, Jewish students were given a small room off the rotunda of the academy's dormitory for their services. It has since become a prayer room for Muslim students, after the All Faiths Chapel was opened and Jewish services were moved there.

''Our history here has been wonderful. We've come of age. We're ready for the next step,'' Elson said.

That step will come too late for Elson, who will be leaving the academy at the end of the school year for his next assignment, and for Parker, who will graduate in May and go on to a career as a Naval officer.

But Parker is happy that midshipmen who come after him will have their own place to worship. And he plans to make use of the chapel himself in the future.

''I'm going to have my wedding in it,'' he said.

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