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June 13, 2012 4:07 pm

Jewish Ties to the U.S. Naval Academy

avatar by Paul Foer / JNS.org

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Rabbi Joshua Sherwin, the new Jewish chaplain in the U.S. Navy. Photo: U.S. Marines.

June marks the arrival of a new Jewish chaplain, Lieutenant Joshua Sherwin, at the sprawling United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. But the Jewish participation in the Navy extends far beyond the chaplaincy.

There are four grand buildings named for Jews at the Naval Academy. The newest, opened in 2005, is the privately funded Commodore Uriah P. Levy Center, which includes a Jewish chapel and is named for Commodore Uriah Phillips Levy, the first American Jew to attain “Flag” rank (commodore was equivalent to rear admiral) just prior to the American Civil War.

Rickover Hall is named for the brilliant yet highly controversial Russian-born Admiral Hyman Rickover, a 1922 graduate called the father of the nuclear navy. Michelson Hall is named for the Prussian-born 1873 graduate and Nobel Prize-winning physicist Albert Michelson, whose experiments performed at the Academy helped determine the speed of light. The Robert Crown Sailing Center was named in memory of the World War II veteran and navy reserve captain, who was a son of Chicago businessman and philanthropist Lester Crown.

Both Michelson and Rickover apparently abandoned their Jewish roots, but Levy, who ran away to sea as a youngster and returned to Philadelphia for his bar mitzvah, said: “I am an American, a sailor and a Jew.” This great American hero—relatively unknown until recently—was court-martialed six times, mostly on outrageous charges by fellow offices who disliked him because he was Jewish. The entrance of the building named for him is reminiscent of Jefferson’s Monticello, because Levy admired the third U.S. president so much that he bought and preserved his unique home, leading some to name him the father of American preservation. He is also credited with ending flogging in the Navy. He did not attend the academy, which opened in 1845.

Howard Pinskey, 1962 graduate and a native of Scranton, Penn., heads the private Friends of The Jewish Chapel that raised more than $14 million from over 3,000 donors to build the Levy Center. He estimates that about 800 Jewish men and women have graduated from the academy among a total of some 78,000.

The Class of 2014 admitted 1,247 midshipmen, or “Mids,” from a pool of 17,417 applicants. Those selected begin with the grueling “Plebe Summer” and then face four regimented and academically rigorous years. Most become Navy ensigns but some become Marine second lieutenants, serving for at least five more years as officers.

Members of the multi-religious Jewish Midshipman’s Club have made shofars from ram’s horns, heard a lecture by a man who rescued Torahs from Europe and built a sukkah for “Salsa in The Sukkah Night.”

While historically there was nativist, elitist snobbery and some incidents of anti-Jewish behavior at the Academy, current Jewish Mids and graduates generally agree that distinctions between or treatment of Mids based on their religious or ethnic background are not tolerated. While Jewish services today are held each Friday night and on major holidays in the spacious and attractive Miller Chapel in the Levy Center, Jewish Mids were originally required to attend mandatory Christian services.  Starting in1938, they marched together on Sundays to a nearby synagogue as “The Jewish Church Party.” The “church party” eventually dissolved, and services were later held in a small chapel at the Academy.

In addition to the Jewish Midshipmen’s Club, there is a full-time rabbi-chaplain and a host of religious, social and educational activities focused around the Commodore Uriah P. Levy Center and Miller Jewish Chapel.

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