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Two Cadets Join Exclusive Group of West Point Bar Mitzvah Boys

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It was standing room only as friends and cohorts filled the 200-seat Jewish chapel at the U.S. Military Academy where two cadets celebrated belated bar mitzvahs earlier this month.

They were the first ever to mark their bar mitzvahs in the three-year-old synagogue, and part of a rare group entering Jewish adulthood at West Point.

Both David Santo, 20, and Robert Paley, 21, grew up in small towns with little Jewish communal life. West Point, they said, offered them opportunities to study Hebrew and Jewish tradition which they never had growing up.

West Point has 55 Jewish cadets out of 4,400 students. Nine Jewish cadets, eight men and a woman, were graduated there Friday along with more than 1,000 others.

Paley said he decided to study for bar mitzvah to demonstrate that he had formally accepted his religion. “I wasn’t aware of what it meant to be Jewish,” he said. “I wanted to educate myself and explore Judaism.”

Santo said he wanted a bar mitzvah for the same reason. “At some point a person has to personally accept Judaism. You have to take the responsibility of being Jewish on yourself,” he said.

Paley said he was one of three Jewish students in his Groveport, Ohio, school. His formal Jewish education was cut off when his father took sick, he explained.

But the older he got, the more his interest in Judaism grew. He began to ask his Orthodox Jewish grandmother questions about Judaism and his roots. “The more interest I showed, the more I learned. And the more I learned, the more I felt my Jewish identity,” he said.

When he entered West Point in July 1985, Paley was encouraged by Rabbi Marc Abromowitz to come to Friday night services, and he began studying Hebrew and Torah with the rabbi. “Religion is the most respected of the cadets’ interests at West Point,” Paley said. “They encourage you to observe your religion.”

ALSO FROM SMALL TOWN

Santo grew up in West Alexandria, Ohio, a town he said had 12 churches and no synagogue and where he felt the sting of anti-Semitism as a boy. The closest synagogue was 30 miles away. The distance made it impossible for him to attend religious school three times a week, but at the Jewish summer camp he attended for eight years he learned much of what he knew about Judaism as a youth.

When he went away to a military boarding school for high school, he became known as “the student rabbi,” leading services regularly on Friday nights there.

“West Point afforded me more opportunities to explore religion than a normal college would,” Santo said. Santo heads the Sunday school program at West Point, attended by officers’ children. He teaches Hebrew, Bible and Jewish tradition.

Both Santo and Paley said they plan to continue their education and Jewish observance and both want to raise Jewish families.

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