Jewish Chapel Opens At Naval Academy

Cmdr. I.A. Elson, above, in the new Jewish Chapel. At right, stone for mosaic tilework in the chapel floor came from a Jerusalem quarry.
Cmdr. I.A. Elson, above, in the new Jewish Chapel. At right, stone for mosaic tilework in the chapel floor came from a Jerusalem quarry. (Photos By Mark Gail -- The Washington Post)
By Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 22, 2005

Navy Adm. Michael G. Mullen, chief of naval operations, Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and hundreds of invited guests joined faculty and midshipmen Sunday at the U.S. Naval Academy to dedicate the Commodore Uriah P. Levy Center and Jewish Chapel.

The Levy Center includes a 410-seat chapel, a Character Learning Center, a fellowship hall and a meeting room for the Brigade Honor Board.

Naval Academy spokeswoman Judy Campbell said that of the brigade's approximately 4,200 members, about 2 percent said they were Jewish, compared with about 38 percent who listed their faith as Protestant, 36 percent who listed Catholic and 24 percent who listed "other."

Previously, Jewish midshipmen could attend services at the academy's nondenominational chapel. At one time, they didn't have the option to worship on campus at all, according to Cmdr. I.A. Elson, a rabbi assigned to the academy.

"For years, the Jewish midshipmen would line up and march to a synagogue in town," Elson said.

The new center is named after a former naval officer who was a powerful example for Jewish people during the War of 1812, when he became an officer and was taken as a prisoner of war by the British, Elson said. Levy was later court-martialed six times because he passionately fought against anti-Semitic insults from fellow naval officers, Elson said.

"Uriah P. Levy was court-martialed probably more than any other officer in the Navy," he said.

After one court-martial, Levy was dismissed from the Navy in 1842. He later was found to be a victim of prejudice and restored to active duty in 1857. Four months after his reinstatement, he received the Navy's highest rank of commodore and was placed in charge of the entire Mediterranean fleet of ships.

Nineteen years ago, when he came into the Navy, Elson said Jewish officers and seamen had to attend a Catholic or Protestant service.

"The Navy of Uriah Levy's day was a much different navy than it is today."

Retired Navy Cmdr. Howard R. Pinskey, president of Friends of the Jewish Chapel, said more than 4,000 people in 37 states raised more than $7 million for the project. The federal government funded $1.8 million, and the remaining money was raised by the Naval Academy Foundation.

Navy Capt. John Pasko, director of officer development for the Naval Academy, said that it was significant that the chapel and the center are located next to where the midshipmen live because this is in line with the academy's mission. "We want to develop them morally, mental and physically."

The facility was built by Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. According to architect Joseph A. Boggs, the stone for the mosaic tile of the chapel floor and a 45-foot high replica of the Western Wall of Jerusalem came from a Jerusalem quarry.

Boggs said even though he is not Jewish and never served in the Navy, he was inspired by working on plans for the facility.

"We are in a very complicated world. In this world today, we need solace."

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