Academy dedicates first Jewish center

September 19, 2005|By Greg Barrett | Greg Barrett,sun reporter

Retired teacher Judy Koenick was so moved by the moment that she drove uninvited from Chevy Chase just to blow a ram's horn: four abrupt, shrill sounds that stole, momentarily, the crowd's attention.

To Koenick, whose father used to sound the horn, or shofar, at synagogue, the loud bursts symbolized the biblical story of Joshua and the crumbled walls of Jericho, of how an army of desert nomads supported only by faith triumphed against overwhelming odds.

Yesterday, the dedication of the $8 million Commodore Uriah P. Levy Center and Jewish Chapel was an event just as momentous, she said. "When I read what was happening I got my father's horn and came," she said. "I had to be here."

A project in the works for 10 years and driven primarily by donations came to fruition over the weekend when the U.S. Naval Academy opened the center, placed strategically at a major thoroughfare for midshipmen foot traffic.

From now on, when 4,200 midshipmen stream daily out of the academy's mess hall they will flow into the Levy Center's Ottenstein Grand Lobby, a passageway to dormitories and athletic fields, and toward the center's Berlin Atrium.

Here, standing on a mosaic floor constructed of stone from Jerusalem, midshipmen will be illuminated beneath a translucent prismatic skylight, a three-dimensional Star of David.

The new center and synagogue are intended to be "a nexus for the moral development component of our mission," academy spokesman Cmdr. Rod Gibbons said.

Speaking to a crowd of about 2,000 during yesterday's outdoor dedication, Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt said the three-pronged mission of the academy - "To develop midshipmen morally, mentally and physically" - is weighted toward ethics and integrity.

Spiritual growth

"Spiritual growth can be an important part of that moral development for those who so believe," Rempt said. "Thus, at the Naval Academy, we embrace freedom of religion in all that we do."

Yesterday's dedication came on the heels of a challenge made to the academy's lunchtime prayer by the Anti-Defamation League. In a letter this summer to Rempt, ADL National Director Abraham H. Foxman asked that the academy stop requiring midshipmen to stand in formation while a chaplain recites the prayer. He said it violates the separation of church and state.

Gibbons said yesterday that the academy has no plans to alter the practice during prayers, which are delivered by clergy of different faiths.

The chapel and Levy Center - named for the first Jew to become a commodore - were primarily funded by 3,000 donors, 350 of whom were Naval Academy alumni. Less than $2 million came from federal funds; the rest was raised by the U.S. Naval Academy Foundation and the Friends of the Jewish Chapel, a nonprofit corporation formed in 1994 to support Jewish midshipmen.

Rempt called it unprecedented in academy history, "in many ways, but especially in terms of how the project was funded."

About 3 percent, or 125 midshipmen, are Jewish. The new synagogue, named a "chapel" to be consistent with the academy's other places of worship, will seat more than 400. Previously, Jewish midshipmen have attended Shabbat services in synagogues off academy grounds or in the small All Faiths Chapel in Mitscher Hall.

The three-story, 26,000-square-foot Levy Center houses a fellowship hall for midshipmen of all - or no - religious faiths, a media center, a Judeo-Christian learning center, a kosher kitchen and the offices of the academy's honor board.

Yesterday's keynote speakers, Sen. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican, and Chief of Naval Operations Michael G. Mullen, applauded the center's goal of developing military character, especially during a time of war in the Middle East.

'Tip of the spear'

"Our Marines and sailors are at the tip of the spear, taking the fight to our enemy overseas," Warner said, looking out onto a sea of yarmulkes, some of them in military camouflage.

Warner then quoted from Psalm 46: "God is our refuge and our strength, always ready to help in times of trouble."

"I say to this generation that you measure up," he said. "You will leave your mark on history."

Mullen said he expects the center and synagogue to have far-reaching impact.

"The bottom line here is leadership," he said. "It's not just intellectual and physical toughness, but it's moral toughness that defines true courage."

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