US Naval Academy Chapel Dedication
I cannot find all the appropriate and necessary words to express the emotion that suffused me throughout the entire September 16-18 weekend of the dedication of the Uriah P. Levy Jewish Center and Chapel at my alma mater. One thought kept running through my head, and continues to do so.
We have come a long, long way from the days of the Jewish Church Party that formed up (mustered in military formation) in Tecumseh Court (the forecourt of Bancroft Hall – the world’s largest dormitory) on Sunday mornings and marched through the Yard (the campus) and through the Academy southwest gate to Knesset Israel synagogue on East Street in the town of Annapolis. There we participated in a special worship service which the local rabbi, Morris D. Rosenblatt, of blessed memory, conducted for the few of us each week. I will never forget the surreal feeling as a Plebe (freshman) of mustering with the handful of other Jewish midshipmen and marching in lock step squad ranks right up to the doors of the synagogue. At the beginning of the year there were just around 30 of us among the 4000 other members of the Brigade of Midshipmen. However, amusingly, by the end of the year our ranks swelled by maybe 50% or more, as many non-Jewish mids joined us as much to participate in the more relaxed atmosphere of worship as well as the bagels and lox provided by the town folks, and to socialize with the local girls who served us and came to meet us. The mandatory worship services for all faiths at the time saw the Protestant and Catholic mids marching in their own formations to the main chapel in the Yard and even praying almost at attention. So, our away from the Yard services were apparently much desired by some.
That ability to maintain my Jewishness in such a new environment was so comforting to me. I had grown up in Brooklyn, New York and hardly knew the distinction between Catholics and Protestants nor much about Christians in general. My neighborhood was almost 100% Jewish. The public schools closed for the Jewish holidays. All our teachers were Jewish. The local merchants and service persons were Jewish. Even at Brooklyn College, where I spent a year after graduating high school, the ethnic environment was familiar and comfortable and accommodating. When I arrived at the Naval Academy, my world changed. I distinctly recall one day when I was a plebe, while studying at my desk in my room along with my two Catholic and one Southern Baptist roommates, there was a figure looming at the open door (we couldn’t secure -close- doors to our rooms as plebes). I jumped up to attention and braced up and announced myself loudly as was the custom (Midshipman Block, fourth class, sir) while the person standing there just quietly looked me over. After a long silence he commanded me to carry on (stand down at ease) and informed me that all he wanted to do was see what a Jew looked like.
But don’t misunderstand that anecdotal story. I want to make it very clear that I never was subjected to any kind of official or institutional anti-Semitism, penalties, derision, duress or discomfort for being and presenting myself as a Jew throughout my entire four years at the Academy. There were always the few individual jerks who would find some reason to try to make life miserable and they seized on anything to pull your chain. If you had big ears, or red hair, or were a farm boy, or whatever, that differentiating characteristic was the entrÃ©e. It was indiscriminate, though. Anyone who was being pursued might have some tag hung on him. (There were no hers back in those days). Any Jewish Mid who took the harassment as much more than that was probably one that would likely equally have been picked on had he been a Christian. Unfortunately, some used their ethnicity as an excuse for any of the travails to which they were subjected for reasons having only to do with their state of military bearing, their preparedness, themselves as human beings. For example, even as a lowly plebe when I was ordered to decorate one of the upperclassmen’s Christmas tree, I topped it off with a six pointed star, and got no particular extra flack for that. During Passover, I took great delight and pride in carrying my box of matzoh under my arm in formation down to the mess hall, placing it firmly in the middle of the communal table, and partaking of it as I braced up (sat at rigid attention) for the meals. We marched to all our meals, three times daily. It was absolutely unheard of for anything other than what we were served to be brought into the mess hall. What a coup.
It was at the Naval Academy that I learned what being a Jew meant. Growing up in a Jewish multitude without any really formal Jewish education, other than gastronomic and a few months of bar mitzvah preparation at a Talmud Torah after public school, I had hardly any real knowledge of my faith. It was all just reflexive, environmental and cultural. At the Academy, being the duty Jew -the representative of us all, as I was expected to be by the others- I had to learn. And I endeavored to do so, and did. To this day, I credit my classmate, my dearest friend of almost 50 years, from the day we took the oath as Midshipmen together, retired Captain J. M. (Mickey) Smith of Gainesville, Florida, with teaching me how to daven.
So when the solemn and triumphal delivery of the Torah donated by the Israeli Navy was borne under a chupah by Midshipmen of all four classes, and carried by the Israeli Naval officer escorts and Rabbi (CDR) Irv Elson, down the center aisle of the new Jewish Chapel, I couldn’t help but have tears run down my cheeks as I do even now composing this missive. It was such a moving and impacting beginning to the long dedication weekend. So many people attended the dedication that there were two worship services on Friday night and two on Saturday morning. The beautiful structure, lined with Jerusalem stone at its eastern wall and the flowing metal upper gallery screens reminding one of the sails of old sailing ships, was spiritually and artistically impacting and blended smoothly into the existing architecture of Mitscher Hall to which it was appended. The domed entry rotunda with Stars of David brought more tears. The edifice itself was graced by a beautiful and majestic round Torah ark which sat between the Ten Commandments chiseled into the Jerusalem stone in ancient Hebrew.
What a unforgettable experience. Our very own 300-seat chapel. Bright. Beautiful. Majestic. Gleaming Stars of David. Hebrew inscriptions. A visible testament to our inclusion and participation in the great fabric of America.
The weekend also saw a formal dinner for 850 attendees with speeches and accolades from people who made the momentous occasion come to life. The principal dinner speaker was Rear Admiral David Architzel, Program Manager for Aircraft Carriers in the Navy. He recounted his experiences as a Jewish Naval officer, and the special treat he had as Commanding Officer of the nuclear aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt while concurrently being the ship’s Jewish lay leader. (And there are too many of those who say that Jews don’t serve.) By the way, Admiral Architzel was also known throughout the fleet as having the ship with the best ice cream. It seems his old high school running buddies were Ben & Jerry of ice cream fame.
Despite the attendance of a goodly number of the estimated 700 living Jewish graduates of the Naval Academy, including naval legends such as Retired Vice Admiral Bud Kauderer, who was Commander of our nation’s submarine fleet during the height of the cold war, there was the participation of a man by the name of Seymour Einstein who came to the event from Chicago. It was he, back in the late 1930s, who had the temerity, the courage, the chutzpah as a Midshipman Class of 1938 to seek out the senior chaplain of the Academy at the time and venture forth with him in turn to call on the Commandant of Midshipmen to posit the necessity and propriety of creation of a separate Jewish worship entity. And so the Jewish Church Party was established. Before that, from the founding of the Naval Academy to that time it was mandatory for all midshipmen to attend religious services. As there were only Protestant or Catholic services, Jewish mids had to choose one or the other. No options. Obligatory religious service participation was the norm until the mid 70s.
The chapel dedication speakers acknowledged Einstein’s contribution to Jewish Naval Academy lore and the current-era moxey of a local Annapolis area businessman by the name of Harvey Stein whose undeterred vision and determination was the seed of the Levy Center project. Harvey, who had no special connection to the Academy, other than residential proximity, thought it would and should be a proper undertaking to have a Jewish chapel there. His kernel of a thought was pursued with determination and enthusiasm as he gathered a group of like-minded folks from around the country and put together an organization – The Friends of the Jewish Chapel – to steer a program to bring that dream to fruition. That steering required obtaining the blessing of the Congress, the Department of the Navy, the concurrence of the Defense Department, the support of the various Superintendents of the Academy, and then the amassing of the funds necessary to accomplish the project which was to be a combination public private endeavor. No small feat. Lesser determination would have long abandoned the glimmer of the idea. It took years to leap all the hurdles – official, political, institutional and financial.
But, there we were in the heat of a sunny day having the dedication ribbon cut by Senator John Warner of Virginia; Admiral Michael Mullen, the Chief of Naval Operations; Vice Admiral Rodney Rempt, the Superintendent of the Naval Academy; along with Harvey Stein and CDR (Ret) Howard Pinskey, USNA Class of 1962 who ran the last laps of the project leadership after Harvey handed off the Presidency of the FOJC to him two years ago. Howard, who settled in Annapolis after his retirement from the Navy Supply Corps to start several area businesses, was among the leaders of the effort from the beginning. Also cutting the dedication ribbons were Mel Fisher, Class of ’55 who was an early strong supporter, conceptually and financially. It was Mel’s personal financial commitments that primed the pump of funds gathering. He brought on board personal friends and made contacts and solicitations and got the bases loaded. Hundreds of other friends and supporters also stepped forward with contributions, and Jerry Miller, Class of ’77 hit the home run and cleaned up.
As the ceremonial blue and gold ribbons were being cut, in the far background, unscripted in the program agenda, I am sure, was the plaintive wail of a shofar being sounded. Talk about an emotional clout.
Attending were a few of my Jewish classmates and a former Superintendent classmate Rear Admiral Virgil Hill. There were contemporaries I hadn’t seen in over 40 years. There were people who I wanted to see but didn’t for the crush. I barely saw my own brother, Captain Martin Block, Class of 1964. The air was electric with the emotion and thrill of the event.
I also especially remember in impacting and emotional detail the Naval Academy men’s choir singing Adom Olom during the two worship services. I will never forget the hauntingly resonant boom of the young mid basso profundo voice that gave that air a chillingly beautiful underscore.
What a wonderful undertaking and outcome. A beautiful, heart stirring Jewish Chapel and all the people who worked so hard to make the dream come true. Every Jew in America needs to ensure that a visit to the Naval Academy and the Levy Center is on any agenda taking him or her to the nation’s capital. It will be well worth the effort.
How proud and pleased I am to have been a small part of the endeavor from its conception to inception. It is a life event I will carry forever. When I think about the event, I picture vignettes of the weekend as if I were leafing through a photo album. It is so indelibly etched in my mind.
Not ten minutes ago, as I was putting the finishing touches on this missive, I received a phone call from an alum who had just returned from the Air Force game to tell me just how beautiful and inspiring the chapel was to him, a non-Jew, and his classmates who visited it during the weekend of their 33rd reunion.
Wishes to all for a Happy and Blessed and Fulfilling New Year.
Captain, USNR, Retired
U. S. Naval Academy Class of 1961
Jewish Lay Leader
U. S. Army Infantry Command
Fort Benning, GA
What an incredible account of the weekend’s events! Your personal memories and the brief history of Jewish life at the Academy really show what a significant event this really was.
Some of your tales about Jewish services at the Academy remind me of similar services at Parris Island… Some things never change.
I couldn’t wait to see the chapel for myself before I read your story, but now I know I have to go! Bravo Zulu Captain Block.
Great read. Commendations and thanks for all you have done to further the Naval Academy! Mazel Tov!
On a side note, does anyone recognize the Rabbi in the picture? Why it’s CDR Irv Elson, also known as “The Rabbi of the Sunni Triangle.” I had the pleasure of meeting with him when he returned from Iraq. You can read more about him here…
Very touching article! It must’ve been an experience the attendees will never forget.
Shalom and La Shana Tova To All:
First as a U.S. Navy Gunnersmate Guns First Class Petty Officer (SW/SCW) I am proud of the great job CDR Irving elson has done. Is is the example of a Great Rabbi Chapelin. The service that he has done for the troops in the Sunni Triangle and all of Iraq is a testomine of Greatness.
As a Jewish Lay Leader first in Norfolk Va and now in San Diego and have been for 16.5 yrs of my career CDR. Elson will do a truely great job. His leadership is a great example for Jew and NON Jew alike. A Great BZ for CDR Elson. Also Please tell him that married life is Great and a warm thanks for his service he preform for my wife and I.
My email is email@example.com Good health to all Shalom
To Whom It May Concern,
My daughter is involved with a graduate of the Naval Academy. They are talking about getting married, and would like to have their wedding at the Academy. The young man is Catholic and my daughter is Jewish. Is there a non denominational chapel at the Naval Academy? I would appreciate any information.
Thank you very much.
I would be interested in YOUR comments as to YOUR
personal memories at the acadamy.
Since I was senior Jewish officer when I was in Iceland,I ran a seder with a Rabbi the JWB sent from NYC.The base commander called me in[2 star]
and said I was detached from all duties to take care of the Rabbi and the show…the WINE was a big hit.
I just got off the phone with my buddy and classmate Neil Block who told me about this website article. I was there for the dedication and shared many of the same experiences that Neil so wonderfully and descriptively wrote about in the above. I am so very happy that the Chapel is there for all people to see and enjoy and realize that Jews have served and will continue to serve in our armed forces honorably and faithfully. Yasher Koach to Neil for writing the article and to Harvey, Mel,Howard,Jerry plus Steve Scheffer’60 and all the others involved for their strength ,tenacity and financial committment in making this dream come true !
neil, i enjoyed reading the article. thank you so much for making our future better. sissy long, married james mergner class61 usna. married richard long 1974.