A Jewish space at academy


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."

So he approached the chief chaplain one day and made a request he now views as crazy for a plebe: Could Jewish midshipmen march off academy grounds to an Orthodox synagogue two blocks away? The chaplain said he would ask the superintendent, but thought it prudent to wait until Einstein finished his first year.

The result was the first "Jewish church party." Sundays soon found Einstein marching alongside 15 other midshipmen to the Kneseth Israel synagogue two blocks from campus. For the first time in the academy's history, Jews had a place to observe their faith.

The synagogue moved in the early 1960s, and the academy offered Jews a small room off the rotunda at Bancroft Hall. But it wasn't until 1981 that the academy built All Faiths Chapel, a narrow, 120-seat room beneath the chaplains' offices in Mitscher Hall.

Switching cross for Torah

From the beginning, All Faiths Chapel has been just that.

Some Roman Catholics celebrate Mass there. Protestants hold prayer meetings. During the intensive "plebe summer" training for new students, three Sunday services for different faiths run side by side in Mitscher Hall, with the strains of drum and guitar from a Protestant service drifting into the Jewish services in the chapel.(Other faiths make do elsewhere, including the nine Muslim midshipmen who pray in the small room in Bancroft Hall used by Jews before the construction of the All Faiths Chapel.)

Before Jewish services on a recent Friday evening, a chaplain's assistant moved a Christian cross and holy water and then rolled back curtains to reveal the ark holding the Jewish Torah scrolls.

Crisply attired in black uniforms, two dozen apprentice sailors file in at 7:15 p.m. They stack their white caps on a display case and slide into benches on the chapel's right side. The men reach into a basket of yarmulkes for a new head covering; women pick up prayer books.

Two dozen others from outside the academy -- graduates, Annapolis residents, a high-ranking Pentagon official -- sit on the left.

In cubbyholes in the backs of the pews, next to the Holy Bible, rest a Catholic Missal book and a book of Christian hymns.

At the front of the chapel, the tall figure of Rabbi Irving A. Elson, shoulders draped with a prayer shawl, gives a sermon in step with his young audience, drawing comparisons between Moses and Harry Potter.

During the service, which lasts precisely 50 minutes, the rabbi intersperses traditional prayers with those in tune with the setting.

"We're thankful for the F-16 pilot who safely ejected from his plane," Elson reminds his congregation. "Please include in your prayers the families of Marines who died in the air crash earlier this week."

Civilian's spiritual rebirth

The stars began to align for the chapel project a decade ago. That's when a quietly affluent businessman and Annapolis resident, Harvey L. Stein, underwent what he describes as a spiritual rebirth.

He says he felt a void despite the material rewards of his international home decor and giftware manufacturing companies. So, he began searching for meaning in a faith he had neglected. "There was a recognition that in all I had accomplished, I hadn't found my center," he says.

He had had Jewish midshipmen students to his five-bedroom house, on Wells Cove, for about 10 years. But by 1992, it was Stein who was heading to the academy, to be bar mitzvahed in the All Faiths Chapel at age 55.

A few years later, as his involvement in the academy's Jewish life grew, he invited a new Jewish chaplain, Jonathan Panitz, to stay at his house for two weeks while searching for a home.

Panitz and his family wound up staying there for two years. The rabbi spoke to Stein often about Jewish midshipmen's need for a deeper connection to their faith.

Soon, Stein and other Annapolis residents who had acted as surrogate parents to Jewish midshipmen had an idea. They would raise money for Jewish cultural and religious activities, saving Panitz from the red tape of securing more funds from the academy.

That group formed the nucleus for the Friends of Jewish Chapel. The nonprofit took up offices inside the Eastport headquarters of Stein's U.S. businesses. It assembled a board of prominent military officials and academy graduates and planned fund-raisers from San Diego to Philadelphia.

Stein contributed $250,000; Fisher, $500,000. Even larger contributions filtered in, including $1 million from Howard Berlin, a retired Navy commander and New York financial services firm executive, and his wife, Joy; and $1.5 million from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation.

Stein still has trouble explaining how a once-unthinkable project became reality.

"So much of this is mystical and spiritual," says Stein, who despite his 65 years still peppers his speech with slang born of a youth spent in Philadelphia's housing projects and jazz clubs. "There are certain destinies, you know."

But destiny had to overcome a Navy that some felt had kept Jews at arm's length since the days of Uriah Phillips Levy, in whose honor the chapel is named.

Born in 1792, Levy was the first Jew to rise to what was then the Navy's highest rank, commodore. Though commander of the Mediterranean fleet, he was court-martialed six times -- circumstances that his backers attribute to an anti-Semitic campaign to deny him promotions.

Early on in the chapel project, someone at the academy asked Stein about the propriety of displaying Jewish Stars of David on the exterior of the chapel's portico. Stein responded that the academy's Main Chapel bears a cross over its entrance. The matter was quickly dropped.

Even some Jewish alumni expressed doubts about the need for a separate chapel: "You got to be kidding me," some said, according to a fund-raiser. "How many Jewish kids are there at the academy?"

The answer: about 80 midshipmen out of the 4,000-strong brigade, a proportion in step with the overall U.S. population.

The chapel's backers placated skeptics and won over the academy in subtle ways. The chapel group offered parts of the second and third floor to the academy, which the academy may use for academic workshops or as conference rooms; it attracted prominent non-Jews, including former CIA Director R. James Woolsey, to its advisory council; and it named the new building a "Center and Jewish Chapel" rather than a "Jewish Center and Chapel."

By the time the formal memorandum of agreement reached then-Navy Secretary Richard J. Danzig in 1999, the major differences were ironed out -- but only after two years of negotiating.

"The Navy bureaucracy on an issue like this is a like beast with a thousand legs and a rudimentary central nervous system," says Danzig, now a senior fellow at the Center for Naval Analysis, a private research group. Danzig, who is Jewish, says he recently made a small donation to the chapel campaign.

Backers say the campaign is already halfway to its $10 million goal. About $6 million is for construction and furnishings. Much of the rest would form an endowment for maintenance and programs.

The 26,000-square-foot building, designed by Boggs & Partners Architects, of Annapolis, has a Beaux Arts exterior in keeping with nearby buildings and an airy interior sanctuary in which light pours through a clerestory onto walls and floors made of Jerusalem stone. If construction begins as planned in the spring of next year, the building could open its doors as soon as 2005.

Balancing faith and duty

The days are long gone since Mel Fisher trooped off campus with the "Jewish church party." But in a culture that prizes uniformity, Jewish midshipmen still wrestle with how to reconcile duty to country with duty to faith.

Two devout Jewish midshipmen have secured permission to leave the academy on Saturdays for a synagogue in town. One strictly observes Jewish dietary laws, and at the King Hall dining room eats little more than Goya beans, tuna and cottage cheese.

But even less observant Jews feel strains.

"In the military, everyone's equal," says Elson, whose shoulder boards are stitched with a symbol of the Ten Commandments, identifying him as a Jewish chaplain. "But Judaism tells us you're a little different -- you don't eat the same foods, you keep your heads covered. So there's always a conflict."

Elson says, however, that teaching Mids to balance competing demands is important preparation for life at sea.

"If we did everything for these mids -- giving them kosher meals -- we're not doing them a favor because they'll go out to their first squadron and will be in for a rude awakening."

Nicholas M. Parker, an earnest 21-year-old who was raised in a Conservative Jewish household in Alexandria, Va., says he has managed at the academy to practice his faith to his satisfaction -- he is now president of the Jewish Midshipmen's Club.

But he says he gets many questions from non-Jewish classmates. During plebe summer, some accused him of being a shirker when he ducked out of physical training one day to attend Jewish services. They later apologized. But he remembers the experience vividly three years later.

When he and some friends went into Annapolis for hamburgers, they asked why he couldn't eat the one with bacon strips that a waitress brought by accident.

He wished there were some place to direct them for an explanation of Jewish dietary laws -- a place within the academy. "I answered as well as I could," he recalls, "but I don't think I totally satisfied them."

Parker will be an officer at sea when the Jewish chapel opens its doors. But he believes it will offer Jewish midshipmen something his generation had to struggle for: They will feel like they belong.

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