WEST POINT, NEW YORK – A number of years ago (when Richard M. Nixon was president) my wife and our two toddlers were driving down New York City’s West Side Highway, south of the George Washington Bridge, when we heard on the radio the president was going to be at the United States Military Academy graduation parade at West Point, New York.
No tickets were required for the event, so I exited the highway, headed north and crossed the “GW,” or “The George” – that majestic span across the Hudson River, as the media often calls it – drove up the Palisades Interstate Parkway and following the signs. I arrived about an hour later at West Point, replete with manicured lawns, ivy-clad buildings, famous halls and statues of the Point’s notable military heroes.
Needless to say, it was an exciting day; witnessing the president land in a helicopter and give a short talk, and watching the corps pass in review.
Which goes to prove that sometimes (not as a rule of course) the best travel experiences are a result of spontaneity. Even a visit to Manhattan, the city that never sleeps, can sometimes benefit from a change of pace, and a trip to West Point and nearby sites can add a new dimension. You don’t need a president to make the trip to the military academy memorable. I’ve been back a number of times since that first visit and discovered there are numerous concerts and events open to the public throughout the year.
For example, during the summer, outdoor concerts are held featuring West Point’s Military Band. One such event this writer attended featured the band playing Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, with live cannon booming out at the appropriate spots.
The Jewish connection to the US Military Academy has existed pretty much throughout the institution’s history. Half of the first class at West Point in 1802 was Jewish. True! (There were only two men in the class, and one of them was Simon M. Levy, who is reputed to have fought at the battle of Maumee Rapids, Ohio, in the American war with the British in 1812.) And Mordecai M. Noah, a graduate of the 1807 class of West Point, helped build the defenses of Brooklyn against an anticipated British attack during that war. For Jewish visitors, the most important site at West Point is The Jewish Chapel at 750 Merritt Road, open to the public from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
Rabbi Henry Soussan is the spiritual leader of the Jewish Chapel. He has lived in Europe and Israel, and his official title is Jewish Garrison Chaplain, with the rank of Major. Not only is he full time at the chapel, he meets and counsels the 70 Jewish cadets here.
An Oneg Shabbat is held every Friday evening at 7 p.m. and the public is invited.
While the service is traditional Orthodox, there are prayer readings in English. The Jewish Chapel Choir is quite well known as it performs throughout the county. Last winter it rendered selections at the Hanukka celebration in the White House. The Jewish cadets have organized a Hillel Campus chapter, and Rabbi Soussan is proud of the fact that he now teaches a course in modern Hebrew language to Jewish and non-Jewish cadets.
“Come and see the chapel,” he urges tourists, adding that the chapel is visited by many delegations of Israeli soldiers. Individuals or small groups do not need to phone ahead, but large groups should book their visit. Visitors usually peruse the Judaica collection, library and exhibits.
To see the West Point campus, first stop at the Visitor Center. It’s a good idea to call the Visitor Center at (845) 938-2638 the week you’re planning to visit to ensure tours are conducted that day. Highly recommended is the one-hour daily tour, from the Visitor’s Center, with West Point Tours, (845) 446- 4724, www.westpointtours.com.
The tour does not make a scheduled stop at the chapel (except for a private group tour) but does give details and yes, sometimes, it is said, will stop at the building.
From the end of May to the end of October, there are also two-hour tours every day.
Bring photo ID and/or your passport to visit the Academy.
Much Jewish history has been made here.
Indeed, the only West Pointer ever buried in the Academy cemetery having been killed fighting under a foreign flag was US Army Colonel David “Mickey” Marcus. He was also known as Israeli General “Michael Stone,” the cover name under which he trained and led Jewish troops in the Jerusalem sector of Israel’s War of Independence. He graduated from West Point in 1924. During World War II, Marcus served in the Pacific and on the staff of Gen. George C. Marshall landed in Normandy in 1944, with US Airborne troops.
One of the recent Jewish Chapel exhibits was devoted to Machal – Jewish and non- Jewish volunteers from outside Israel who fought in the 1948 War of Independence.
Among the many displays was one devoted to the role of “Mickey” Marcus.
Also in the Academic Board Room in the Administration Building on Thayer Road stands a mantel of the nine greatest warriors the world has ever known, including three Jewish military leaders: Joshua, David and Judas Maccabeus.
As you walk around the campus, you will see monuments to some of America’s greatest generals, including George Washington, Douglas MacArthur and George S. Patton.
If you want to stay overnight at the Academy, highly recommended is the Historic Thayer Hotel, 674 Thayer Road, West Point, New York. Passover Seders have been held here for Jewish men and women cadets.
About 20 minutes from West Point stands the famous designer outlet shopping mall, Woodbury Common Premium Outlets, Route 32, Central Valley, New York. Standing there one day, I spied busload after busload of foreign tourists arrive at this huge outdoor boutique filled mall to “shop till they drop,” as the saying goes. Woodbury Commons is open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily and opens at 9 a.m. on sales days. (845) 928-4000.
And a few exits away on the New York State Thruway, just north of the Tappan Zee Bridge, is Monsey, New York, a wonderful shtetl located in the Town of Ramapo, Rockland County, New York. Monsey is the home of both Rockland Kosher Supermarket, 27 Orchard St., and Wesley Kosher, 455 Route 306. If you are looking for kosher provisions, the above two are the places to shop.
Driving through this hamlet, you just might think you are in Mea She’arim or Bnei Brak. Hungry? Try The Purple Pear, 106 Route 59 (845) 352-5262, for breakfast, lunch and dinner, or Chai Pizza Falafel, 94 Route 59, next to Amazing Saving, for quick bite. Nothing fancy, strictly kosher.
But if you are waiting to eat back in New York City, here are a few strictly kosher establishments among the several dozen in New York City that are recommended: Le Marais, 150 West 56th St.; Mendy’s Kosher Deli, 61 East 34th St.; Mendy’s Rockefeller Plaza, and Mendy’s Grand Central Station; My Most Favorite Food, 247 West 72nd St. (dairy) and Taam Tov, 41 West 47th St. 3rd fl.
Returning to New York City on a recent trip, I stopped at highly-recommended hotel in midtown Manhattan: San Carlos Hotel, 150 East 50th St., New York City. (212) 775- 1800, www.sancarloshotel.com. We talked to Hy Arbesfeld, president of the company and hotelier, who speaks Yiddish and welcomes his guests, including a number of Israelis who have discovered this excellent establishment located within walking distance to many major tourist sites.
Wi-Fi is free, and there are microwaves, coffee makers and a refrigerator in each room. A continental breakfast, (included in the room price), is served in a large room off the lobby, and the babble of foreign languages reminds one that New York City more and more is an international city.
And considering that the long, bitter cold and stormy winter of 2012-2013 is over for city and countryside, well, as the song goes, “Summer time, and the livin’ is easy.”
The author, travel writer and journalist, is the author of the just-published Klara’s Journey, A Novel (Marion Street Press) and The Scattered Tribe, Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond (Globe Pequot Press). He blogs at www.bengfrank.blogspot.com “I Travel the World.”
This article was originally published by the Jerusalem Post.