There’s a joke at the U.S. Military Academy that 50 percent of the first graduating class was Jewish — and that it’s been downhill for Jews ever since.
The joke is true, at least on the face of it: Simon Magruder Levy was indeed half of West Point’s two-person graduating class in 1802, and Jews have made up a much smaller proportion of graduating classes since. But Jewish life appears to be alive and well among the 80 or so Jewish cadets currently enrolled at the hilly campus beside the Hudson River.
“It’s a really close-knit group. They’re my closest friends,” Megan Williams, West Point’s Hillel student representative, says of the other Jewish cadets.
That friendship can be crucial for cadets at West Point, where the roughly 4,000 students who make it through four grueling years receive a free education in exchange for at least five years of post-graduate service in the army.
Some of the Jewish cadets come from military families. Some are descendants of Holocaust survivors who want to give something back to the country that provided a safe haven for their grandparents.
A few admitted they had to overcome parental resistance to enroll. After all, while becoming a U.S. military officer is no shame, it’s not the career most Jewish parents envision for their children.
Jacob Bergman found that out when he informed his Israeli parents of his plans to attend the military academy.
“When I said I was going to West Point, they were like, ‘What?!’ ” Bergman recalls.
But Bergman — recruited as a track athlete and attracted to West Point by the promise of something beyond a normal college experience — persevered.
Now, four years later, Bergman, who was born in Israel but grew up in White Plains, N.Y., is a senior at West Point. He has earned the prestigious appointment of honor captain, the student who sits with the academy’s superintendent and decides what punishment should be meted out to cadets who have violated regulations.
His parents have since come around, he says, and his father now is proud to visit him at the academy.
His father “lives vicariously through me,” Bergman says.
Bergman’s years at West Point haven’t just educated him and taught him leadership and military skills — ranging from fieldwork in weapons training and hand-to-hand combat, to classes in military strategy and ethics — they’ve also made him feel more Jewish.
It started the summer before his first, or plebe, year.
Known as Beast, cadet basic training is “five weeks of all the things you’ve seen in movies: sudden-death haircuts, buckle-shining, wall-jumping, scrambling cadets looking perplexed,” writes David Lipsky, author of “Absolutely American,” a recent book on West Point.
One of Bergman’s older friends told him to ask for permission to participate in prayer services on Friday nights during Beast.
“No matter how scared you are during basic training, tell them you want to go to services on Friday nights,” Bergman remembers his friend saying.
Bergman did and his commanders complied, allowing him and the other Jewish cadets to attend services at the school’s Jewish chapel.
The multimillion-dollar edifice at the top of the campus “was a sanctuary during basic training,” Bergman says.
Dedicated in 1984, the chapel recently hosted the third Jewish Warrior Weekend when some 40 students from civilian universities, as well as some from the other service academies, visited West Point to get a taste of cadet life.
The tall white building features a sanctuary that seats several hundred people. The services draw cadets, faculty members and local Jews, including members of the Jewish War Veterans of the United States of America.
The building also has a library, small exhibits and a hallway plaque with the name of every known Jewish cadet graduate, from Levy through Lt. David Bernstein, a 2001 West Point graduate who was killed this fall in Iraq.
The most famous of the Jewish graduates, David “Mickey” Marcus, is known for parachuting into Normandy on D- Day and then helping convert the Haganah into a regular army during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. He was killed in the 1948 war by friendly fire.
Like Jewish students at other colleges, West Point cadets celebrate the Jewish holidays on campus, and they mark Holocaust Remembrance Day.
Living a completely observant Jewish life at West Point is difficult, cadets admit: There aren’t enough observant students to merit making kosher food available, and the demands of studies and military training make Sabbath observance nearly impossible.
Some Jewish students, like Matt Moosey, say they refrain from eating pork and shellfish.
“People do their best here,” said Moosey, a Sephardi Jew from a military family in Fort Collins, Colo.
The military does its part for soldiers in the field, providing kosher MREs — meals ready to eat — for those who want them.
There’s also a Jewish choir at the academy that is about two-thirds Jewish and performs songs such as “Ani Ma’amin” and “Jerusalem of Gold” alongside old military standards at synagogues and college campuses.
“I’ve been as active in Jewish life here as I was at home,” says Ben Diamond, a plebe who was a member of the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth in his hometown of Houston.
The choir also is a way to introduce soldiers — particularly non-Jewish cadets from small towns with few or no Jews — to Jewish culture.
One Jewish student quoted in Lipsky’s book said other cadets tried to convert him.
“Basically, lot of ’em say Jesus is really the best way to go,” George Rash is quoted as saying.
Changing such sentiment is a matter of education, says Maj. Elizabeth Robbins, who has served as the cadets’ Jewish lay leader while West Point’s Jewish chaplain, Rabbi Carlos Huerta, is deployed in Iraq.
“Almost all of the issues of religious intolerance are based on ignorance, not malice,” Robbins says.
Maj. Huerta, described by students as a dynamo, is credited with galvanizing the West Point Jewish community since he arrived in 2000.
The Jewish cadets are well aware that they, like Huerta, could face dangerous duty in Iraq once they graduate.
While many Jewish college students elsewhere are at the forefront of student antiwar movements, Jewish students here appear universally supportive of the war on terrorism.
That the United States is allied with Israel makes the war personal, Jewish cadets say. But they’re clear about one thing: The United States comes first.
“We might be very proud of Israel, but our first and foremost duty is to the United States of America,” Moosey says.
And they’re as connected to God as to country.
When Bergman goes out in the field, for example, he makes sure he has his essentials, like his weapon and water. But he also carries a Bible and a camouflage yarmulke.
“You believe in religion in a foxhole,” he says.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.