The Air Force Academy’s Jewish Chapel: Spires and six-pointed stars

 

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USAFA Jewish Chapel Credit: John Stemple

USAFA Jewish Chapel
Credit: John Stemple

May 7, 2013 — During November 2012 The “Austere Challenge 12” joint U.S. Military-Israel Defense Forces (IDF) exercise was underway in Israel. While on a sanctioned break from their duties, two Israel IDF Logistics Corps soldiers and a Sar-El volunteer posed with U.S. Military chaplain pins on an IDF medical support base. A month later, the Jewish Welfare Board Jewish Chaplains Council took possession of the gifts. The items have since been for distributed to three U. S. Military chaplains. This recent offer was reminiscent of an earlier gifting. Decades ago, the IDF donated Jerusalem Brownstone tiling for the foyer of the U.S. Air Force Academy (USAFA) Jewish Chapel. Although widely separated in time, the two contributions are nonetheless symbolic of the continuing relationship between the Israel Defense Forces (IDF), the U.S. Air Force (USAF) and military chaplaincy.

The co-author examines a Czech Torah scroll in the foyer. Credit: John Stemple

The co-author examines a Czech Torah scroll in the foyer.
Credit: John Stemple

Israel’s support of military chaplaincy is understandable. The Hebrew Bible contains two examples of chaplaincy in biblical times. These appear in Exodus 17:8-13 and Deuteronomy 20:2-4. Fittingly, America’s Founding Fathers drew upon Jewish thought when composing formative documents. Maj. Gen. (Ret.) Patrick Henry Brady, a Roman Catholic and former UH-1 Iroquois (aka “Huey”) pilot makes an interesting point. On page 213 of his engrossing and insightful book Dead Men Flying: Victory in Viet Nam, he states the following: “One of the unique blessings of the American military is the Chaplains Corps.” He continues, “The chaplaincy is . . . a reflection of our roots as spelled out in the Declaration.”

A view of the USAFA. Credit: John Stemple

A view of the USAFA.
Credit: John Stemple

As if reflecting the above sentiment, a Hillel Internet page states that the “Framers of the Constitution and the Sages of the Talmud cherished many of the same values.” Appropriately, Rabbi Albert Isaac Slomovitz records within (page 7) his book The Fighting Rabbis: Jewish Military Chaplains and American History the following insight. “Themes of liberty and constitutional guarantees of religious freedom became an integral part of America. Jews would not hesitate to fight for these rights.” Thus, American Jews have repeatedly answered their nation’s call to service. Many have served in the ranks of the USAF and its U.S. Army Air Corps predecessor.

USAFA Chapel Credit: John Stemple

USAFA Chapel
Credit: John Stemple

Ironically reflecting Exodus 24:4 when Moses “builded an altar under the hill,” in 1954 Congress and President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized the USAFA. The site selected for the facility was at the base of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. There, on a clear day, the majestic gradients reach up to a glorious deep blue sky and a seemingly unlimited heaven.

There was to be a multi-faith chapel, and the Hebrew Scriptures were again influential. The Skidmore, Owings and Merrill chapel design team (under Mr. Walter Netsch) continued the practice of incorporating influence from the Torah. Evidence of this appears in a July 27, 1962, Time magazine article. The feature (Art: Spires That Soar) stated that Netsch’s design “goes back to the ancient tents of the wandering Tribes of Israel, for each tent created . . . .” Construction began in 1957.

The plaque in the foyer of the Jewish Chapel. Photo: John Stemple

The plaque in the foyer of the Jewish Chapel.
Photo: John Stemple

In 1960 the IDF donated Jerusalem brownstone tiling for the Jewish chapel’s foyer. This offering was appropriate because the Patriarch Jacob utilized stone (Genesis 28:17-18;22) to designate a sanctuary, a place of prayer. The 1,631 pieces were a gift of friendship. Notably, at the time the relationship between the IDF and USAF had yet to blossom. Yet, the Israel Defense Forces/Air Force (IDF/AF) owed much to former U.S. Army Air Corps and USAF personnel and equipment. The aforementioned included some of reborn Israel’s first pilots and aircraft types proven during USAAC service.

F-4 Phantom II at USAFA. Credit: John Stemple

F-4 Phantom II at USAFA.
Credit: John Stemple

The Jewish chapel has its own entrance on the lower or terrace level of the spired building. It is a circular shape that seats a maximum of 100 individuals. This chapel has a diameter of 42′-0″ and a height of 19′-0.” A vertical grill encloses the sanctuary with inserts of clear glass, which open to the foyer. These stained glass panels are purple with alternating green and blue accents. A Wikipedia Webpage states the following: “The circular walls of the synagogue are panels of translucent glass separated by stanchions of Israeli cypress.”

F-15 at USAFA. Credit: John Stemple

F-15 at USAFA.
Credit: John Stemple

Artist Shlomo Katz contributed paintings, which adorn the interior walls, that depict a Biblical narrative. These renderings are in three groups: brotherhood, flight, and justice.

Co-author Susan Gale at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Co-author Susan Gale at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Co-author Susan Gale commented after one of many visits, “One can always sense G-d’s presence within the Jewish chapel. It is a beautiful place.”

An F-16 on static display. Photo: John Stemple

An F-16 on static display.
Photo: John Stemple

Static examples of American-designed aircraft types that are still in USAF and IDF/AF service adorn the Cadet Area, which is adjacent to the USAFA Chapel. A McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II sits across from the Air Garden on the southeastern corner. At the southwestern corner a McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle occupies space, and a General Dynamics F-16 Fighting Falcon displays on the northeastern corner.

IDF soldiers flank a Sar-El volunteer. All hold chaplain pins. Photo: Shelby Foles Composition: John Stemple

IDF soldiers flank a Sar-El volunteer. All hold chaplain pins.
Photo: Shelby Foles
Composition: John Stemple

_____________________

The authors (John Stemple and Susan Gale) wish to thank the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colorado, for granting them access to the Jewish Chapel. The IDF Logistics Corps and Sar-El are also due a note of thanks for their cooperation.

Sources and Suggested Readings

*Scripture quotation is from the Jewish Family Bible London Edition 1881 (as revised by Michael Friedlander, Principal, Jews’ College, London). Beautiful reprints of this classic English / Hebrew publication are available from Sinai Publishing in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Albert Isaac Slomovitz, The Fighting Rabbis: Jewish Military Chaplains and American History, New York: New York University Press, 1999.

Patrick Henry Brady with Meghan Smith, Dead Men Flying: Victory in Viet Nam, New York: WND Books, 2012.

Hillel: United States of America Constitution Preamble

http://www.hillel.org/jewish/textstudies/special/constitution.htm

Israel Defense Forces Facebook Page

https://www.facebook.com/idfonline

Jewish Welfare Board Jewish Chaplains Council

http://www.jcca.org/jwb/

Sar-El

http://www.sar-el.org

Sholomo Katz

http://www.rogallery.com/Katz_Shlomo/katz-biography.html

U.S. Air Force Academy

http://www.usafa.af.mil/

U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel

http://docomomous.org/register/fiche/united_states_air_force_academy_cadet_chapel

U. S. Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel (Wikipedia)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Air_Force_Academy_Cadet_Chapel

U.S. Air Force Cadet Chaplain Corps

www.usafa.edu/hc/visitors.cfm

U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel Fact Sheet

www.usafa.edu/superintendent/pa/factsheets/chapel.htm

U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel

www.usafa.af.mil/information/factsheets/factsheet.aspid=9415

U.S. Air Force Academy Visitor Map

http://www.usafa.edu/superintendent/pa/visitorcenter.cfm#map

U.S. Air Force Chaplains Corps

http://www.chaplaincorps.af.mil/

 

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