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A Trim Vessel of Worship

"I always kid Joe that I am going to make him an honorary Jew because I'm amazed at how well he got it," says Rabbi Irving Elson, a Navy commander. "I almost don't have to preach sermons, because the building speaks for itself."

The chapel (an all-purpose Navy term for a place of worship) also is compelling for non-Jews. I can say that with assurance because I am not Jewish, and I found the chapel to be quietly mesmerizing on two recent visits. It is a serene, contemplative, spiritual place.

If the architectural split between outside and inside is mainly because of the building's context, its ordinary, rectangular shape also conveniently accommodates a variety of other uses the Navy wanted. These included an informal gathering place for midshipmen, an auditorium and classrooms to teach "understanding and tolerance for the beliefs of others," in the words of Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt, Naval Academy superintendent. The $15.5 million center was paid for mainly by private donations, with the federal government contributing a mere $1.8 million.

Levy was the ideal -- and obvious -- choice to become the building's namesake. In 1858, after several decades of distinguished service, he became the first Jew to rise to commodore, and commanded the Mediterranean fleet. A proudly Judaic patriot, Levy faced six courts-martial during his career, most if not all growing out of anti-Semitism. All six convictions were overturned -- on three occasions by presidents. His campaign to eliminate flogging is generally credited with the abolition of the practice.

The commodore made one other significant contribution to his country. An ardent admirer of Thomas Jefferson, he purchased the former president's home of Monticello in 1836, when it was in dire straits. Levy worked on the house periodically until his death in 1862 and thus helped to save it for posterity. Jefferson, of course, loved domes and deployed them in his buildings -- awkwardly at Monticello and splendidly at the University of Virginia. Boggs, always a thoughtful architect and often a romantically expressive one, was referring to this connection when he designed a domed structure as a frontispiece to the Levy Center.

It is a fitting historicist gesture that symbolically unites the commodore, the president and the principles of freedom and tolerance both believed in. And inside the building, behind the dome, we find a bold, satisfying, contemporary expression of faith.

The Levy Chapel is open to the public when not in use. Visiting hours at the Naval Academy are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. An identity card with a photograph is required for admission. Guided tours are available at the academy's Armel-Leftwich Visitor Center. Up-to-date information on security restrictions can be found athttp://www.usna.edu.


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