Jewish ties to the U.S. Naval Academy

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Click photo to download. Caption: 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. Credit: U.S. Navy.

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.

Click photo to download. Caption: Rabbi Joshua Sherwin, the new Jewish chaplain in the U.S. Navy. Credit: U.S. Marines.

Sherwin, the Navy’s new rabbi, succeeds the retiring Rabbi Seth Phillips as one of eight chaplains serving the more than 4,000 Mids, regardless of religious affiliation. Himself the son and grandson of rabbis, the 31-year-old Sherwin grew up in Tennessee and Arizona, received his undergraduate degree from the University of Central Florida, and graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Sherwin began active duty in 2009 and just completed his first tour as chaplain for the Headquarters Batallion, Second Marine Corps Division at Camp Lejeune, NC. In that role, he hosted Passover seders in Afghanistan.

Among the distinguished Jewish graduates of the Academy were Capt. Sydney S. Sherby (Class of 1936), who helped establish the U.S. Naval Test Pilot School and served as first commander of the Navy Air Test Command. The school is now based at the Patuxent Naval Air Test Station, about 60 miles south of Annapolis, and serves as headquarters of the Naval Air Systems Command—which is headed by another Jewish Academy graduate, Vice Admiral David Architzel (1973). The former aircraft carrier commander is possibly the highest-ranking Jew in the Navy and reports directly to the chief of naval operations. His brother Ralph also graduated from the Academy.

The naval service of another set of Jewish brothers had a tragic ending. Steven Pontell (1988) of Columbia, Md., died when his training jet crashed, and his brother Darrin (1998) was killed on the morning of September 11, 2001 while on duty in the Pentagon.

In December 1941, Kentucky-born (four star) Admiral Claude Bloch (1899) commanded the Fourteenth Naval District at Pearl Harbor.

Brooklyn-born Solomon Silas Isquith (1919) also survived the Japanese air raid. At 5-foot-4, he was a long shot for admission until he tied weights to his feet as he slept and stretched just tall enough to pass the physical exam. When the USS Utah, the ship he commanded was sunk in Pearl Harbor, Isquith escaped through a porthole and then helped rescue many sailors, earning him the Navy Cross and the Purple Heart. He was placed in charge of salvage operations in Pearl Harbor.

Another 5-foot-4 Jewish graduate who stands out was the legendary combat hero Victor “Brute” Krulak (1934), who rose to the rank of Lt. General in the Marine Corps. His son, Charles C. Krulak, also graduated from the academy and eventually served as the Marine Corps commandant, its highest-ranking officer. While the senior Krulak denied his Jewish roots, his son Charles became commandant of the Corps and his other two sons each became Christian chaplains.

Commander Adolph Marix (1868), a Jewish native of Saxony, Germany, served as second in command of the ill-fated USS Maine that was blown up in Havana, Cuba. He was appointed the secretary of the official inquiry into the explosion.

Admiral Maurice H. Rindskopf (1938)—a Navy Cross, Silver Star and Bronze Star recipient who died in 2011—was the youngest submarine commander in World War II. Other distinguished Jewish graduates include a deputy and a director of naval intelligence, respectively, Admiral Ellis Zacharias (1912) and Admiral Sumner Shapiro (1949). Prolific author and engineer Admiral Edward Ellsberg graduated number one in the Class of 1914.

In terms of Jewish history and relevance, perhaps no Academy graduate stands out as does Paul Schulman, who graduated in 1944 with the accelerated wartime Class of 1945. At the personal request of David Ben-Gurion, who knew his family through Hadassah, Lieutenant Schulman assisted with the Aliyah Bet clandestine immigration ships, fought in naval engagements, and participated in the Haganah’s infamous attack on the Irgun’s ship, Altalena. Ben-Gurion named him the second commander of the Israeli Navy. A recent book, The Ablest Navigator by J. Wandres, documents his unusual story, asserting how he has generally been ignored or forgotten in Israel.

Posted on June 11, 2012 and filed under Features, U.S..