Naval Academy breaks ground for Jewish center

Building housing chapel facilities to open in 2005

November 03, 2003|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

Joshua Fischer will have graduated from the Naval Academy by the time the Commodore Uriah P. Levy Center and Jewish Chapel is due to open in spring 2005.

But Fischer, 21, president of the Jewish Midshipmen's Club, has big plans for the $12.8 million center -- the academy's first Jewish house of worship.

"One day, when I find a woman who wants to marry me -- and be stuck with me for the rest of my life -- hopefully I'll come back and get married there," said Fischer, of Phoenix, Ariz.

The academy broke ground on the project yesterday. Fischer and about 500 midshipmen, faculty, staff and donors gathered under a tent at the building site, which faces an athletic field and is adjacent to a religious activities building and a dormitory.

The center will celebrate "freedom of the individual," Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, the academy superintendent, said during the groundbreaking ceremony. "We announce to the world that an important step in the history of the Naval Academy is taking place."

The Naval Academy is the only service academy without a Jewish house of worship. Worshipers at West Point and the Air Force Academy say their chapels brought Jews a measure of acceptance within institutions not always known for accommodating differences.

For years, Jewish midshipmen have held their Friday Shabbat and other services at the academy's All Faiths Chapel, which also accommodates other faiths. But it has been unavailable lately because of damage from Tropical Storm Isabel, forcing them temporarily to use a Christian chapel.

"We've always had a place to worship, but this will be different," said Midshipman Rebecca Greenbaum, 19, of Duxbury, Mass.

In addition to the chapel, which will have about 400 seats, the center will house classrooms, meeting spaces and the academy's Honor Court. The building, designed by Boggs & Partners Architects of Annapolis, has a Beaux Arts exterior design in keeping with nearby buildings. A Star of David will be on the portico.

The center will memorialize Levy, who insisted on honoring the Jewish Sabbath while at sea. He rose to commodore -- the highest rank in the Navy -- despite anti-Semitism and a half-dozen courts-martial (he was honorably reinstated each time, the academy says). He served from 1812 until his death in 1862.

"I am sure he could not have imagined that [the center] could ever exist," Rempt said. The center would benefit young future officers who, like Levy, will help steer "the religious and moral development of their troops," he said.

The building is being funded by a partnership of donors, some of whom attended the academy and others who didn't. Among the leading donors were businessman Harvey Stein, president of a foundation sponsoring the project, and Mel Fisher, a 1955 graduate who is chairman of the fund-raising campaign.

Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath, were a day of classes and inspections when Fisher attended the academy. Jewish midshipmen put off prayer until Sunday and worshiped outside the academy's gate.

Slowly, things changed. The academy dedicated the All Faiths Chapel in 1981 and permanently assigned its first Jewish chaplain four years later.

The groundbreaking, originally scheduled for September, was delayed by Isabel.

"Commodore Levy would have understood by a storm," Rempt said.

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