Naval Academy's Rabbi Shares Faith, Workload With Mids

Chaplain Seeschance To Bring'jewish Perspective' To Students

August 11, 1991|By Angela Gambill | Angela Gambill,Staff writer

It isn't duty that pulls Albert Slomovitz to the exercise fields at the U.S. Naval Academy at 5:55 every morning. The commander doesn't have to be here, twisting and bending under a pale orange sun, humidity soaking his T-shirt with sweat.

But as he jogs into the haze with several hundred mids, the black letters on the back of his shirt spell out his calling: CHAPLAIN.

Slomovitz is making history as the second military Jewish chaplain in 145 years of Naval Academy life, and he sees the job as a mission. So he holds Hebrew classes. He makes a point of eating meals with those he serves. And he gets up early to work out with the students.

"Our job (as chaplains) is just to be accessible, show them we're approachable," he explains. "Maybe when they need someone, they'll say, 'Oh yeah, that's the person who sweated with us in the heat.' "

As chaplain for 720 students, Slomovitz doesn't serve only the Jewish population at the academy; he serves everybody. He is a tall man with warm brown eyes, an engaging smile and a vision that extends far beyond the 60 Jewish midshipmen on campus.

"It's a real opportunityto bring in a Jewish perspective to a group of highly intelligent people who maybe didn't know aboutJudaism," he says.

Gentiles learn about another faith through trips to Israel the rabbi has organized, or by conversations at King Hall, the dining facility that holds 4,400 people. Seated at a table of stiffly polite midshipmen, Slomovitz gets a daily sense of how the students are managing. But he also teaches.

"For some people Judaism is like discussing Martians," he says. "but they're interested."

When a hearty fellow at the breakfasttable urges Slomovitz to take some ham, he explains that most Jewish people don't eat ham or pork. When a brand-new plebe inquires, "Can rabbis get married, sir?" he chuckles and responds, "I'll ask my wife!"

When inquired about the insignia on his shoulder boards, "What ISthat?" he can explain the Hebrew source of the 10 commandments.

As well as the myriad chances to enhance interfaith understanding, Slomovitz says, the days consist of basic chaplain'scounseling, talking to students who are homesick or daunted by the rigorous academics.

Then there are official duties: praying at football games ("I pray for the team, and we win!" he says in jest), or holding services in the first Jewish chapel in the Academy's history. Two Torah scrolls grace this interfaith sanctuary, one from the Holocaust, one in the navyand gold Academy colors.

Next door to the chapel is Slomovitz' office, a comfortable, rumpled sort of place with gym clothes and booksin chairs, posters of Jerusalem on the walls and a little sign on the desk that reads, "From your mouth to G-d's ears."

Slomovitz, whoa week ago was promoted to commander, the equivalent of lieutenant colonel in other branches of the service, isn't a bit rumpled himself.His white uniform is starched and spotless; his dark hair tidy. But there's something relaxed about the way he takes existence, stretching his legs and leaning back to recount how he ended up in this particular slice of life.

He is finishing his doctoral dissertation -- the history of rabbis in the military -- about the same time he chalksup his first two years as a Naval Academy chaplain. The 40-year-old joined the Navy 12 years ago, but he's been a student of interfaith relations even longer, he says. "There's a certain moral obligation toknow the other person. It's the golden rule enacted."

Slomovitz attended the Jewish Institute of Religion at Hebrew Union College in ajoint program with Columbia University in New York. Then he earned amaster's degree in interfaith relations from Loyola University of Chicago. Along the way, he married, was ordained and has built a familyof four children with his wife, Gail.

He never lost his interest in interfaith understanding. "Tracing our religious roots is important," says Slomovitz, one of the 18 Navy chaplains who are Jewish, out of of 1,150 official navy chaplains. "To function at my highest peak,I MUST respect the person next to me."

Slomovitz praises his boss, Chaplain Vince Carroll, as well as fellow chaplains who have helpedhim develop programs to education both Jewish and non-Jewish mids about the Jewish faith. One is a three week trip to Israel, in which the students work on a kibbutz. Most who've gone on the trip for the past two years have not been Jewish. Another innovation has been the Holocaust Memorial Program, this past April 14.

The rabbi teaches Hebrew classes once a week, with nearly 50 students -- many of them non-Jewish -- attending, Slomovitz says. He organizes Seder meals for Christians, encouraging Jewish midshipmen to bring their non-Jewish roommates. "We want to show our Christian friends what the Lord's Supperwas about. The bread and wine were already (Jewish) religious symbols," he explains.

All this is important for the military, Slomovitzsays, because "we function as a unit and people must get along." Andit helps future officers who will someday deal with religious issues, such as requests for time off for a Ramadan, a Moslem holy day, or for special diets for Lent.

"Every time I get up to pray in front of a group of midshipmen -- Jewish, gentile, whatever -- I think in ateeny way we've helped reduce prejudice. The more people see they have in common, the less intolerance there will be."

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