What does the United States Military Academy at West Point have in common with Tevya of "Fiddler on the Roof"? "Tradition!"
The traditions of West Point are legion and no other institution in America is more imbued with history and tradition. A brand new West Point Jewish Chapel, first in history, of imposing proportions, hewn of New Hampshire granite and limestone, blending in with the Gothic West Point architecture and with the traditional Jewish rock-hewn Ten Commandments, the Asseret Ha-Dibrot, looking to the historic Hudson River, now stands as a living synagogue, more than a monument to Jewish history and creative survival for the Corps of Cadets-and the more than 2 1/2 million visitors who visit the Academy every year.
In subtle tradition, too, the rock-ribbed Ten Commandments on the outside are directly supporting, inside, the Holy Ark.
FIRST FULL-TIME ACTIVE-DUTY CHAPLAIN
Another new Army tradition is being forged with the arrival three years ago of Chaplain (Lt. Col.) Marc A. Abramovitz, West Point’s first full-time, active-duty, uniformed chaplain, endorsed by the JWB Commission on Jewish Chaplaincy. West Point’s previous policy was to employ civilian rabbis, ministers and priests.
The Commission on Jewish Chaplaincy of JWB, as the endorsing agency of Jewish chaplains, stands in a unique civilian posture with its direct access to the Department of Defense. The JWB-CJC tradition of religious harmony among Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Judaism is a model that can be emulated.
RELIGION FOR CADETS VERY IMPORTANT
There are 48 Jewish cadets at West Point-41 men and seven women. They all look to the Jewish chaplain to sustain their Jewishness during their military careers at West Point.
Cadet Marc Mayer, 23, of Millerseville, Pa., class of ’86, is the cadet in charge of the Jewish chapel, working with Chaplain Abramovitz on religious and social services.
Aim: "I wanted to come here since I was a kid. West Point is a whole world of its own. I did more things here in my first year than I had done in my whole life up to that time. I jumped out of an airplane; scuba-dived all over Europe; trained in Europe, a fantastic experience; been to Israel on vacation; hope to go again this year on ‘space available’ Air Force aircraft."
Future: Mayer’s dad is the mayor of Millerseville. The son sees his as a military career. "But if I want to shift careers, there are lost of head-hunters out there. West Pointers are disciplined and are sought after in the corporate world."
Jewish Identity: "Here at West Point, religion is a very important part of cadet life. Religious activity is encouraged because it provides a moral foundation."
JEWISH TRADITION AT THE POINT
Jewish tradition at The Point goes back to its very origins: In 1802 half the graduating class was Jewish. There were only two seniors. They were commissioned second lieutenants in the Army. One was Simon Levy, who had been appointed for his good conduct in the Battle of Maume Rapids, August 29, 1794. The whole corps at the Academy numbered 10.
Brandy and Sherri Langston are the pretty daughters of Richard and Judith Langston. Both are cadets, Brandy a junior in the class of ’87, Sherri a plebe-freshman in the class of ’89. Their father is a corrections officer. Both young women are outgoing despite their cadet discipline. Modestly, they both expect to "do well" in their rigorous studies.
"Since we were both young, we wanted to come here; I was motivated by my sister," said Sherri. Women are "pretty much equal" at West Point, they agree. They found "no unseemly hazing" at all, and "no ‘harassment’ of women. We’re not women libbers," they said evenly.
Homesickness is a problem; and for the boys-girls are the problem. There are few of them around.
Cadet Mayer says: "Too many Jewish cadets are dating out of the faith. Inter-marriage is a problem here as in civilian life. If we don’t stop, we’ll do to ourselves over a long period what Hitler tried to do in 12 years. That’s my message to my Jewish generation."
On the lighter side, the 28-cadet Jewish choir accepts 10 assignments each year to various synagogues, temples and organizations. "People are surprised to find Jews at West Point," Mayer smiled. "The whole purpose of the choir trips is to show our presence. We want to encourage kids to come to West Point."
Candidates for West Point come through Congressional nomination (75%), the remainder through Department of the Army, competing for service-connected cadetships. Interested high school students, by their junior year, should write to Director of Admissions, United States Military Academy, West Point, NY 10996-1797, or phone (914) 938-4041 for details.
Each cadet receives a full four-year U.S. Government scholarship which covers tuition, room, board, medical and dental expenses, plus an annual salary of $6,500 to cover uniforms, books and incidentals. Total value, about $181,000 in 1985 terms.
Chaplain Abramovitz, 40, the West Point "first," is Orthodox, a graduate of Yeshiva University (YU ’67) and Haim Berlin Yeshiva, as well as the Ferkauf Graduate School at YU. His wife Cheryl is an artist under the professional name of C. Braina. They have three children, Dena, 13, and twin boys David and Daniel, 10.
Wives and families, especially wives, are a great help to Jewish chaplains. They are often teachers, cooks of great Jewish meals, and often surrogate mothers and aunts to homesick cadets. At West Point they have a very talented and warm Cheryl Abramovitz.
MORE FUNDS NEEDED FOR CHAPEL
Herbert M. Ames is president of the West Point Jewish Chapel Fund. Private funds were needed to build the $5.6 million chapel. Most of it has been raised by Ames, his friends and benefactors. Somewhat over a million dollars more needs to be raised. Meanwhile the West Point Cadet Jewish Chapel stands like a granite "rock of ages".
Lt. Gen. Willard W. Scott, Jr., present Superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy, says: "Religious freedom and cultural pluralism are two of the chief foundation stones of our American democracy. They have been won for us by the courage and dedication of people who came before us and risked their lives."
‘NOT AN EASY TASK BUT A CHALLENGING ONE’
"This post has been a challenge to me," Chaplain Abramovitz declared. "Not an easy task but a challenging one. Before I was assigned as the first active-duty military chaplain, West Point employed part-time civilian chaplains. They were good, but not the same as full-duty chaplains to the cadets."
Yet, Chaplain Abramovitz pointed out, the late beloved Rabbi Avraham Soltes was one of the main moving forces in the drive to build the Jewish Cadet Chapel at West Point, "inspiring those who worked with him with his tireless zeal and efforts." His unexpected death on May 23, 1983, cast a pall over West Point where he had served long and dutifully as civilian chaplain. He lies buried in West Point, not far from his special project, the Cadet Jewish Chapel. Burial at West Point is a rare tribute accorded civilian benefactors.
An active-duty chaplain may be assigned to a body of soldiers including all religious faiths. Chaplain Abramovitz has now been assigned as Chaplain to the 3rd Regiment, in addition to his specific Jewish faith-group duties.
"The Jewish soldier is very vulnerable, always the greater minority" he asserted. "We Jews are struggling to keep our heads above water religiously. If we don’t show them their way, who will?
"The Jewish military chaplain gives Jews and Judaism a positive image. Remember, many Jewish cadets and soldiers in the Army might have only memories of Jewish religious life."
Helping to fill the breach is the JWB Commission on Jewish Chaplaincy whose chairman is Rabbi Barry H. Greene, of Short Hills, N.J. Rabbi David Lapp is director and Rabbi Nathan Landman is deputy director. Through the Women’s Organizations’ Services, JWB provides Jewish gifts at Hanukkah, Passover specialties, and religious articles throughout the year.