I had returned to the grounds of West Point, the United States Military Academy (USMA) only once since our son, Elliot, graduated in the Class of 2004. The occasion was to give an invited Optometric Continuing Education lecture at the Thayer Hotel. But this weekend was different. This weekend we returned to attend the wedding ceremony of Elliot’s classmate, and Miriam and I took the opportunity to re-visit The Jewish Chapel. Not only was it nostalgia, but we were moved spiritually as we had been the first time we were there. I am going to make a bold statement: Every Jewish child in America should be required to visit West Point, and in particular to tour The Jewish Chapel. The 8th grade trips to Washington, D.C. are nice to learn about governance, but every child learns about that in school. The trips to Holocaust Museums are important to be gripped by what was lost in the name of ethnic cleansing, but every child learns about that in school. The year after high school that increasing numbers of Orthodox Jewish students spend in Israel immersed in sacred texts and feeling the presence of the Israeli Army is enlightening, but they learn about that in school and within the culture of the synagogue.
Teachers can begin by acquainting themselves with the informative book by the late Colonel Lewis L. Zickel, a 1949 USMA graduate. Colonel Zickel highlights the Jews who have attended West Point and gone on to serve with distinction as professional military officers. By way of a lighthearted introduction, teachers can ask students to offer their best guess at the percentage of Jewish students in West Point’s entering class when the institution was established in 1802. The answer is a staggering 50 percent! Alright, there were only two students in the class and one was Jewish. But facts are facts, right? Yet that is where the lightheartedness ends, and the significance of the Jewish Chapel begins.
The USMA Jewish Chapel was completed in 1984, the culmination of a twenty year undertaking. The organization responsible for the project was the West Point Jewish Chapel Fund a private, non-profit civilian organization. This group raised more than 7.5 million dollars to erect and furnish the facility. I love the stone wall plaque in the entrance foyer of the chapel. It reads as its header: “West Point Jewish Chapel – Erected 1984 With Contributions From Americans Who Love Their Country And Its Traditions.” You’ll note that Colonel Zickel, who passed away in 2007, was a Vice-President of the Fund.
Opposite this huge arcing stone masterpiece, hewn as if it were tablets Moses brought down from the mountain, hangs an understated plaque honoring Colonel Merton Singer, USMA Class of 1938, a Jewish cadet from New Jersey.
On July 9, 1999, in honor of Armed Forces Sabbath, Colonel Singer gave a guest sermon about The Founding of the Jewish Chapel at West Point. As a West Point Cadet in the 1930s, Singer reportedly helped initiate the Academy’s first Jewish worship services. They were held in the office of the Protestant chaplain and conducted by civilian Rabbi volunteers. The establishment of a dedicated chapel building as a haven for Jewish students remained Colonel Singer’s dream, and with his connections he agreed to serve as President of the West Point Jewish Cadet Chapel Committee. I was moved by the comment attributed to Colonel Singer that both Jews and Christians, graduates and non-graduates, served on the Fund Raising Committee.
When our neighbor’s daughter, who had emigrated to Israel, was back for a visit in the late ’90s, she greeted Elliot and was surprised to learn of his plans to join the U.S. military. “I don’t understand”, she remarked. “If you want to serve in the Army, why not come to Israel?” To which Elliot replied: “Well, Felicia, you know Israel needs friends in high places too”. Around that time, in fact the same year that Colonel Singer gave his address detailing the establishment of West Point’s Jewish Chapel, the 33rd annual Colonel David (Mickey) Marcus Memorial Service commemorating him and other American volunteers who died in Israel’s War of Independence was held May 2nd, 1999, at the United States Military Academy. His legacy lives on in the halls of the Jewish Chapel Building, and the incredible link between this West Point Alumnus and the State of Israel is told here.