A Jewish space at academy

Chapel: Midshipmen look forward to worship under the Star of David without going to shared places or into town.

February 10, 2002|By Ariel Sabar | Ariel Sabar,SUN STAFF

Melvyn Fisher walked through the gates of the U.S. Naval Academy in the early 1950s and into an institution that placed his Jewish faith into a straitjacket.

When the school prepared a special early meal the night before the Jewish fast day of Yom Kippur, it served roast pork, forbidden under Orthodox dietary laws.

Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath, were a day of classes and inspections. So, Jewish midshipmen would put off prayer until Sunday. While Christian classmates assembled in the Academy's main, terracotta-domed chapel -- the one with the golden cross over its front door -- Fisher and the other Jewish midshipmen marched off campus to an Annapolis synagogue.

Fisher had grown up in an Orthodox home in Cincinnati. So it all took some getting used to -- particularly the official Sunday morning call to prayer, over the Bancroft Hall loudspeakers, summoning "The Jewish church party."

"That in itself was a disturbing description to me, because I never had attended church in my life," Fisher recalls. "But we had no choice."

Life for the academy's practicing Jews has improved measurably since Fisher's day. A Supreme Court ruling in 1972 ended mandatory Sunday prayer. An All Faiths Chapel was built on campus nearly a decade after that. And before long, the academy hired a full-time Jewish chaplain.

But the quest for Jewish belonging at the officer-training school will reach its largest milestone next year, when workers are to break ground for the first Jewish chapel in the academy's 157-year history.

The Commodore Uriah P. Levy Center and Jewish Chapel will be a three-story gray granite building with a 350-seat sanctuary and a library, a kitchen, and a dozen offices and meeting rooms. It will rise in the heart of campus, flanked by wings of the sprawling Bancroft Hall dormitory.

It will be the first U.S. military building bearing the Star of David on its exterior, and its boosters describe its construction as a breakthrough for Jewish midshipmen and the Navy.

"I think it's an overdue change," says Vice Admiral John R. Ryan, the academy's superintendent. Of the need for a Jewish chapel, he says, "It's something we should have always acknowledged."

Fisher, now 71 and an Ohio businessman and philanthropist, wrote the first check in a scrappy campaign to raise $10 million in private funds to build the chapel. "Where we are today compared to where we were in the '50s is light-years away," he says.

Backers contend that the chapel will be more than a place of worship. It will be, they say, a memorial to Jewish naval heroes, an emblem of religious diversity, and an antidote to many midshipmen's unfamiliarity with Judaism.

"While easier today, it is still tough to be a Jew" at the academy, says Abe J. Wasserberger, the executive vice president for development at Friends of the Jewish Chapel, the nonprofit group pressing for its construction. "After this facility is built, it will be easier."

The Naval Academy is the only service academy without a Jewish house of worship. The Air Force Academy included a Jewish sanctuary when its main chapel was built in 1963. The Jewish chapel at West Point opened in 1984. Worshipers in those chapels say their construction brought Jews a measure of acceptance within military institutions not known for accommodating differences.

Louis Gross, 71, is a West Point graduate who helped raise money to build the chapel there. "It's like having a home of your own," he says, "as opposed to living out of a back room of somebody's house."

A small group of Annapolis residents wanted much the same thing. To get there, they mounted a national fund-raising drive and persuaded the Navy bureaucracy to cede prime real estate for a faith practiced by 2 percent of midshipmen. But the story of Jews at the academy begins much earlier.

`Rock the boat'

In 1937, an 18-year-old plebe from Chicago took a risk and wound up changing history.

Before Seymour Einstein set foot on the campus, the academy offered no place for Jews to worship. Jewish names appeared in student records as far back as the 1860s. But all midshipmen, regardless of faith, were required to attend Episcopal services in the Main Chapel on Sundays.

For his first few months, Einstein went to those services. He liked the sermons and, he says, the pretty girls -- officers' daughters.

But he began to feel out of step with his past -- his three years in Hebrew school, the Jewish holidays spent in his neighborhood synagogue in Chicago, and a mother who taught him that Jews had to cling to their faith if it was to survive in a world of gentiles.

"I really wanted to not only express myself as a person, but as a Jewish person," says Einstein, now 82 and living in Tucson, Ariz. "I felt it would be a disservice to my inner self not to rock the boat."

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