At Norfolk Seder, Slavery A Mixed Presence

At Norfolk Seder, Slavery A Mixed Presence

"If anyone understands the seder’s emphasis on collective memory and revered traditions, it is members of the military..."

About two dozen members of the U.S. Navy, and one Army family, attended the first-night seder this week at Norfolk’s Uriah P. Levy Chapel.  Photos by Chaplain Vinson Miller
About two dozen members of the U.S. Navy, and one Army family, attended the first-night seder this week at Norfolk’s Uriah P. Levy Chapel. Photos by Chaplain Vinson Miller

Norfolk, Virginia – For the last several years Rochelle Smith conducted a small seder for about a dozen fellow Jewish sailors aboard a U.S. Navy transport ship stationed off the North Carolina coast.

“I was like a chaplain,” said Smith, a lay leader known as Rochel to her friends and shipmates.

This week, Smith was a seder guest.

A 26-year-old lieutenant and native of Florida’s Tallahassee area, she was among two dozen members of the Norfolk Naval Station’s small Jewish community who took part in a seder that I led as a volunteer at the Uriah P. Levy Chapel here.

Smith and her husband, Jordan, also a Navy officer, and the others were taking part in what has grown into one of the most popular events that brings together Jewish sailors and soldiers each year.

The men and women at the seder here were mostly in their early 20s, single, and junior officers, and dressed in casual civilian garb except for one young man in a blue camouflage uniform.

With the assistance of the JWB Jewish Chaplains Council, the Aleph Society and the Chabad-Lubavitch chasidic movement, an estimated several thousand Jewish members of the U.S. Armed Services this week celebrated Passover at seders at dozens of military bases and aboard ships around the world. Other isolated Jews in uniform marked the holiday by themselves with “solo seder” kits provided by JWB.

A pre-seder introduction in the Levy Chapel began at 19:30 hours – 7:30 p.m. in civilian time – as the Revelrie-like “Retreat” bugle sounds blared from loudspeakers across the base at sunset, accompanying the daily flag-lowering ceremony.

At the 100-year-old Naval Station here on the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay – at 6,200 acres, it’s the largest Navy base in the world – the seder was an evening of introductions to and reunions with the approximately more than 100 Jewish sailors stationed here; the number changes from day to day because sailors (and a small number of Marines also based here) are constantly shipping in and shipping out, always welcomed at Norfolk’s handful of synagogues.

Rochel Smith, in a pew of the Uriah P. Levy Chapel at the Norfolk Naval Station, has served as a lay leader at many seders in recent years.

The base looks like a sprawling tree-lined university campus, with rows of low-slung brick buildings, large fields of grass, its own airstrips and ubiquitous memorials and markers for fallen sailors.

If anyone understands the seder’s emphasis on collective memory and revered traditions, it is members of the military who serve in such a venue, I said at the seder. Heads nodded in agreement.

The chapel is located on Gilbert Street around the corner from Bacon Street, between Pier 3 and a long chain link fence decorated with hand-designed T-shirts bearing messages for Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Month.

The chapel is a unique blend of Navy tradition and Jewish symbols. The stained-glass windows encircling the room include depictions of a Magen David inside the Navy’s mariner’s wheel; inside the Torah ark are planks from the U.S.S. Constitution (“Old Ironsides.”)

The seder took place in a medium-sized classroom/social hall next door to the Levy Chapel – the Navy’s oldest Jewish land-based Jewish chapel, now marking its 75th anniversary.

The sailors enthusiastically read from the ArtScroll Family Haggadah, schmoozed and flirted, texted and took pictures with their cell phones, and discussed their current and upcoming postings and assignment.

The chapel is named for the service’s first Jewish commodore – at one time the U.S. Navy’s highest rank – who is credited with abolishing flogging as a form of punishment in the Navy, and subsequently buying and renovating Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello estate to its former grandeur after it had fallen into disrepair.

A proud-but-hot-tempered Jew, Levy (1792-1862) was subject to six courts-martial, usually after he responded to an anti-Semitic slur; he shot to death in a duel a man who had called him “a damned Jew.”

A World War II destroyer bore his name, and the Jewish chapel at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis is also named for him.

Levy, who later made his fortune as a real estate investor in New York City, used slaves to help rebuild Monticello.

The Norfolk area’s connection to slavery was a constant presence at the seder, sometimes tacit, sometimes spoken. I mentioned how the Navy had helped to liberate slaves; how slaves had worked at plantations in the region; how they had helped build Sewell’s Point, a Civil War military battery that previously stood on the ground where the Naval Station does now; how slaves arrived at the nearby docks and escaped there; how they found temporary refuge at “stations” on the Underground Railroad in the vicinity; and how Jacob Abrahams, Norfolk’s first-known Jewish resident, was an owner and kidnapper of slaves.

“Our history was mixed,” I said.

The chapel has become the center of the base’s Jewish life, which has experienced a revival during the last few years under the leadership of Rabbi Gerson Litt, a Houston native who serves there with the title of contract chaplain, said Command Chaplain Vinson Miller. Attendance at holiday celebrations and Friday-afternoon pre-Shabbat get-togethers has steadily increased, said Chaplain Miller, a Protestant who heads the interfaith team of Jewish, Christian and Muslim faith leaders based in Frazier Hall.

For the first time in awhile, Rochelle Smith, facing camera at left, got to attend the seder as a guest.

At the seder on Monday, Chaplain Miller snapped photographs.

The sailors at the table didn’t ask any questions, but listened attentively and read the Four Questions collectively in Hebrew.

Used to following orders, they read when I told them to read, stood when I told them to stand.

They even laughed at my jokes, bless them.

A onetime round of applause occurred when I pointed to a laminated, sepia photograph of a woman in a Navy uniform I had positioned behind me at the front of the room – it’s of my mother, who as a young, single woman from Buffalo had enlisted in the WAVES, the woman’s branch of the Navy, during WWII.

Smith, who sometimes supplements her kosher diet with kosher MREs (meals ready to eat), praised the Navy’s support for her increasingly observant lifestyle.

The Navy is very “accommodating” to sailors’ religious needs, said Smith, who grew up in a Reform household and now frequently attends services at B’nai Israel, Norfolk’s major Orthodox congregation.

She said she will probably be aboard a ship next Passover but might return to conduct a seder.

“If I have to, I’ll do it again,” she said. “I’ll be happy to do it.”

Staff writer Steve Lipman traveled to Norfolk under the auspices on Rabbi Gershon Litt, contract chaplain of the Uriah P. Levy Chapel. He led the seder at the Naval Station using supplies donated by Daniel Levine of J. Levine Books and Judaica, Chanan Furman of B2B Supply, and friends Lisa Levy, Shulamis Blokh, Debby Caplan, Michael and Rebecca Wittert, Simi Eisenstat and Thea Wieseltier.

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