Some might interpret the fact that the United States Navy did not appoint a Jewish Chaplain until 1917 as some sort of sign or evidence of discrimination or religious bigotry. But to do so would be to ignore the hard fact that, for most of the nation’s history, the number of Jewish people was very small. Before 1700, it’s estimated that only between 200 and 300 were living throughout what became the Thirteen Colonies. During the Revolutionary War, the Jewish population numbered around 2,500. Jewish immigration increased dramatically in the latter half of the 19th Century, and by 1880 approximately a quarter-of-a-million Jewish people lived in the United States—a tiny fraction of the total population at that time.
The practical implications of such numbers in relation to the establishment of Jewish Chaplains is better understood when reading the letters written by Rabbi David Goldberg, the Navy’s first Jewish Chaplain, during his first and only sea tour. Noting that only five out the six-hundred crewmen aboard the USS President Grant were Jewish, Goldberg said he’d grown convinced the “position of a Jewish Rabbi called upon to minister to the religious needs of an almost exclusively non-Jewish personnel is anomalous, and indeed intolerable.” Goldberg resigned as acting chaplain upon the completion of his sea tour, and the Navy did not have a fully commissioned Jewish Chaplain until nearly the 1930s.
But it took another seven decades for Jewish members of the United States Naval Academy to not only have the spiritual guidance of Chaplains, but also for up-and-coming officers to have the opportunity to worship at a house of faith designed with their beliefs and practices exclusively in mind.
Until 2005, Jewish midshipmen at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland wishing to participate in Shabbat services every Saturday would have to visit the Knesset Israel Congregation in the city or worship at the All Faiths Chapel on the grounds off the school. But the completion of the Commodore Uriah P. Levy Center and Jewish Chapel in September of that year marked the first time in Navy history that Sailors from the Jewish faith would be able to worship in a Naval facility used only for that purpose. With the opening of the 35,000-square-foot building, the Navy rid itself of the distinction of being the only one of the three U.S. military academies to not provide Jewish students with their own worship facility.
For the academy’s Chaplain, Commander Irving Elson, the opening of the Center was a milestone he had longed to see the Navy achieve. Up until 1938, in fact, Jewish midshipmen were not even allowed to trek to the synagogue to worship, but rather had to pick between attending either Catholic or Protestant services.
The Center’s namesake, Uriah P. Levy, was a naval officer during the War of 1812 who was brought before six courts-martial because of disputes that were provoked by anti-Semitic behavior and taunts of the officers he served with; though convicted each time, they were all eventually overturned.
Funds for the Chapel came from two private groups, the Friends of the Jewish Chapel and the U.S. Naval Academy Foundation.