WASHINGTON – Retired Navy Cmdr. Howard Pinskey remembers well that as a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy, he would walk outside the campus gates every Saturday to attend Shabbat services at Knesset Israel Congregation in downtown Annapolis, Md.
Many Jewish midshipmen also have worshipped at All Faiths Chapel on the academy grounds.
But last week, Pinskey stood inside the new $8 million Commodore Uriah P. Levy Center and Jewish Chapel, marveling that Jewish midshipmen finally will have their own place on the campus to express their faith.
“This is a national shrine. To us it is the end of the beginning,” said Pinskey, president of Friends of the Jewish Chapel, as he stood under the 12-foot-high Star of David that illuminates the center’s atrium.
The 35,000-square-foot center includes the 410-seat chapel, which will be used only for Jewish services, as well as a character learning center and fellowship hall for midshipmen of all faiths.
The building also will house the offices of the academy’s honor board.
With today’s dedication of the center, the Naval Academy will become the last of the three U.S. military academies to provide Jews with their own worship space.
Funds for the project were raised by two private groups, Friends of the Jewish Chapel and the U.S. Naval Academy Foundation.
Navy Capt. John Pasko, director of officer development for the academy, noted the new facility’s central location on the campus. It is adjacent to Mitscher Hall, which connects the seventh and eighth wings of Bancroft Hall, the midshipmen’s living quarters.
Cmdr. Irving Elson, the academy’s Jewish chaplain and one of seven Navy rabbis in the nation, said the Navy has come a very long way in recognizing religious diversity.
Elson, who came to the academy in June from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq, said Jewish midshipmen were not even given the option of worshipping at a synagogue until 1938 and had to choose between Catholic and Protestant services.
There are about 120 Jewish midshipmen at the academy, officials said.
“We want people to feel like the hands of God are protecting them when they are here,” Elson said of the chapel and the building’s other facilities.
Elson said it is significant that the center is named after Uriah P. Levy, a naval officer during the War of 1812, who faced six courts-martial because of conflicts with fellow officers over their anti-Semitic insults. All six of his convictions were eventually overturned.
Levy, who died in 1862, was the first president of the Washington Hebrew Congregation and also led efforts to abolish flogging in the Navy.
“The Navy of Uriah Levy’s day was a much different Navy than it is today,” Elson said.
The chapel’s architect, Joseph Boggs, led visitors on a tour Thursday, showing them a pavilion at the chapel’s entrance that was modeled on Thomas Jefferson’s home at Monticello and a nearly 45-foot-high wall that is a replica of the Western Wall of Jerusalem.
The wall is made of stone imported from Jerusalem.
“The motherland is right here,” Boggs said. “We wanted people to feel the stones. Everybody can’t go to Israel.”
Sen. John W. Warner, R-Va., Chief of Naval Operations Michael Mullen and other dignitaries are expected to attend the dedication ceremony today.
Midshipman 1st Class Marshall Hoffman, 22, of Oregon, felt fortunate to get a look at the chapel before this weekend’s festivities. “It feels great to have a Jewish home,” Hoffman said as he walked inside last week.