Jewish chapel will open tomorrow at the Naval Academy

Levy Center aims to mark diversity in the service

September 15, 2005|By Bradley Olson | Bradley Olson,SUN STAFF

When Howard Pinskey attended the U.S. Naval Academy more than 40 years ago, he and 41 other Jewish midshipmen had to leave the yard to attend services at an Orthodox synagogue two blocks away.

But tomorrow evening, Pinskey and about 120 current Jewish midshipmen, among many others, will have a chance to attend Shabbat services in their own chapel in the middle of the academy grounds.

The Commodore Uriah P. Levy Center and Jewish Chapel, the first U.S. military building bearing the Star of David on its exterior, will have its formal dedication Sunday. The $8 million facility was paid for with $1.8 million in federal funds and money raised by the U.S. Naval Academy Foundation and the Friends of the Jewish Chapel, a nonprofit group dedicated to supporting and sponsoring Jewish midshipmen.

Pinskey, president of Friends of the Jewish Chapel, said Sunday's dedication will be the culmination of eight years of planning, fundraising and coordination.

"I'm glad the building is finally built," Pinskey said. "I really look at this as the end of the beginning. We had to get the walls up and get the ship built, but the best part of this is that we're going to be able to use it."

Unlike the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., and the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., the Naval Academy has never had a Jewish center of worship. Shabbat services had generally been held in the All Faiths Chapel, where services for several other faiths are also held.

The Levy Center includes the 410-seat chapel, a kosher kitchen and a Judeo-Christian learning center. Flanked by wings of Bancroft Hall, the sprawling dormitory that houses all 4,200 midshipmen, and across from King Hall, where they eat, the three-story, 26,000-square-foot facility also houses the academy's Honor Center, classrooms, offices and a cafe.

Capt. John Pasko, director of the academy's officer development division, said the new building will become a center of excellence for the moral growth of midshipmen of all faiths. As a home to the Brigade Honor Committee, an oversight body of midshipmen that enforces the school's honor code, as well as the Jewish chapel, the Levy Center will become an important place where midshipmen can become leaders, he said.

"This will be a place they can come to after meals and have time to sit down and ... think about what's happening to them," Pasko said.

Multiple services

So many people are planning to attend Shabbat services this weekend that two services are planned for both tomorrow and Saturday, said Marshall Hoffman, a senior midshipman and president of the Jewish Midshipmen's Club. Adm. Michael Mullen, chief of naval operations, is expected to attend.

Designed by Boggs & Partners Architects of Annapolis, the building's exterior has a Beaux Arts design that will blend in with architectural styles at the academy and in Annapolis. The chapel's walls and floor are covered with rocks, smoothed and rough, cut from a quarry in Jerusalem.

`Homeland around you'

Joseph Boggs, who designed the center, said he hoped that would help Jewish midshipmen feel that the "homeland is all around you."

Cmdr. Irving Elson, a rabbi at the academy, said the center was made with seven entrances, the same number that are said to have existed for Abraham's tent.

Uriah P. Levy was the first Jew to become a commodore, the Navy's highest rank during the time he served, from the War of 1812 to his death in 1862. Levy was court-martialed and found guilty six times during his career, although each case was eventually overturned. By many accounts, Levy was a proud man who insisted on observing the Jewish Sabbath while at sea.

The first Jewish chapel built for the U.S. armed forces -- at Norfolk, Va. -- also was named after Levy.

Dan Mariaschin, executive vice president of B'nai B'rith International, a Jewish charity and advocacy organization, said the Levy Center will make an important contribution not only to the academy and the Baltimore-Annapolis Jewish community, but to the American Jewish community.

"With diversity issues and inclusiveness, our country is a mosaic, and the service academy is a mosaic," he said. "The establishment of this center within the Naval Academy underscores that, and I think that for the midshipmen, Jewish and non-Jewish, this will foster a greater understanding of the social fabric that makes up America."

Hoffman, the president of the Jewish Midshipmen's Club, said he was amazed to see the Levy Center this week as the finishing touches were being made.

"We've been looking forward to this for a long time," he said. "It's great that we have such a beautiful, amazing building to call our home."

While he said he has never felt alienated from other midshipmen or from the academy because of his faith, he believes the center and its central location will change Jewish life at the 160-year-old institution.

"This is definitely a recognition of Judaism at the Naval Academy," he said. "A lot of my friends that are very curious about other religions will be able to come here and see this place. It will just make things a little easier."

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