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Jersey City welcomes West Point cadets

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Seniors Kyle Staron, Matt Archuleta, and Porter Smith look on as Rabbi Ken Brickman reads from the Torah in a synagogue in Jersey City. Cadet Ben Salvito

Fifteen West Point cadets spent three days in Jersey City last week getting a taste of the various religious cultures they might encounter when deployed overseas and learning how the different communities get along in Hudson County.

The cadets, mostly seniors, were participants in an elective course at the U.S. Military Academy called “Winning the Peace.” The course, said instructor Maj. Angelica Martinez, is designed to give students different perspectives on how to interact with local populations with unfamiliar cultures, religions, and languages.

“They not only gain a new sense of cultural awareness, new confidence,” Martinez said, “[but] it brings home how challenging their new positions and duties will be when [they] don’t speak the language, don’t know the culture.”

The course, created in 2004, focuses on understanding political, strategic, and ethical implications of military missions; increasing awareness of cadets’ own perceptions of other cultures and how those cultures perceive them; and understanding the complexity of creating sustainable peace and security.

It culminates in the Jersey City trip, planned with the Cultural Coalition of Jersey City for Winning the Peace, an organization of city elected officials and religious leaders. The trip began last Thursday at a place many immigrant communities value in common: Ellis Island. The students spent two nights sleeping in the Islamic Center of Jersey City and three days visiting Islamic, Hindu, and Christian religious sites as well as Temple Beth-El, a Reform synagogue.

“The cadets really have an eye-opening experience,” Martinez said. “They really get a sense of how this community comes together and, despite the differences, works things out.”

At Temple Beth-El, Rabbi Ken Brickman explained the significance of religious items in the sanctuary, including the Torah, and gave some cadets their first introduction to Judaism.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity,” Brickman said of the program.

Brickman pointed out that during the first Iraq war, the military was not familiar with Islamic customs, creating an additional source of tension. The cadets might not encounter Jews as often as practitioners of other religions when they deploy overseas, he said, so he is happy they took this opportunity to meet them now.

“Having Rabbi Brickman walk us through what Sabbath services look like, it really does help us understand a little bit more — not only about what people believe but about larger conflicts” such as the differences between Christianity and Judaism, Martinez said.

The trip “opened my eyes to a variety of topics I didn’t know about,” said senior Porter Smith, who added that he appreciated the lessons in conflict resolution. “It was good to experience different cultures and interact with different community leaders to see what they’re doing to promote religious tolerance and create a cohesive community.”

Jersey City resident Ahmed Shedeed is one of the trip’s main organizers. Jersey City, he said, is a perfect setting to see a blend of diverse cultures.

“Here in this city we have different cultures, different religions, and different languages,” he said. “And everybody lives in peace and harmony.”

This was not always the case, he said, pointing to a 2005 incident that threatened to shatter the delicate balance between Jersey City’s religious communities. The murder of a Coptic Egyptian family of four spread fear and distrust between the city’s Egyptian Christian and Muslim communities, who had until then managed to leave behind the strained relations experienced in their homeland.

Eventually, authorities apprehended the perpetrator — who was not Muslim — and wounds began to heal. According to Shedeed, Jersey City has since become a model for interreligious cooperation.

“If we can do it here in Jersey City, they can do it everywhere,” Shedeed said. “We can all live together, not by fighting but by creating love and harmony.”

 
 

Officers in training — to sing

For West Point’s Jewish choir, songs are part of the leadership plan

Edmon J. RodmanMusic
Published: 30 December 2011
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President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama listening to a performance by the West Point Jewish Chapel Cadet Choir in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House, Dec. 8. Pete Souza/Official White House Photo

It does not get more “only in America” than this. A Christian president with an African-born Muslim father and a rabbi on his wife’s side of the family throws a Chanukah party at the White House. The featured act is the West Point Jewish Chapel Cadet Choir — a group that serves as a beacon of Jewish pride and identity at one of the nation’s top military academies, while also boasting a non-Jewish conductor and plenty of non-Jewish members.

And one more twist.

When the Jewish choir performed at the White House Chanukah party earlier this month, it chose to serenade the commander in chief with a song of peace.

“We were invited there for the party, a big honor,” said Cadet Evan Szablowski, 20, the choir’s non-Jewish conductor, a junior from Bakersfield, Calif.

After performing for arriving guests such holiday favorites such as “Maoz Tzur,” “Mi Yimalel [Who Can Retell]” and “Oh Chanukah,” the 34 singing cadets — a group of men and women — were directed to file quickly into the Diplomatic Reception Room for a photo with President Barack Obama and the first lady.

“Then the president came in,” Szablowski said, “and in a big booming voice welcomed us. He and Michelle shook our hands. The president looked into each of our eyes.”

Moments after the photo was taken, “totally out of nowhere, [the president] asked if we can perform,” recalled Szablowski, who spoke to JTA shortly after completing his final in “Mathematics and Networks for Counter Insurgency.”

From its repertoire of Jewish songs, the chorus quickly decided to perform one of the group’s favorites, “Lo Yisa Goy.”

First, however, Szablowski recounted, the group explained that the song is based on the words of the prophet Isaiah, which translated from Hebrew begins with the famous passage, “Lo yisa goy el goy cherev; lo yilm’du ohd milchamah” — “nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war.”

“It’s probably the coolest thing I have ever done at the academy. We were giddy,” Szablowski said, adding that about halfway through the performance it hit him — “a Jewish choir was performing for the president of the United States.”

It was a thrilling experience for the cadets, said Susan Schwartz, the “officer in charge,” or faculty adviser, of the chorus and the campus Hillel who accompanied the group on the trip.

“They met their commander-in-chief,” Schwartz said. “Afterwards, they were bouncing off the walls.”

“We received a warm reception,” said Allyson Hauptman, an alto in the chorus who is a sophomore double majoring in international law and IT systems. Hauptman, who attended Hebrew school and celebrated becoming a bat mitzvah in Philadelphia, felt that seeing such a high level of support of Jewish culture in public was “heartwarming.”

According to Schwartz, the West Point Jewish Chapel Choir has been in existence for more than 60 years, with the most recent White House performance coming six years ago during the presidency of George W. Bush.

At the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York, 60 to 70 cadets identify as Jewish in a total population of 4,500, said Schwartz.

Part of the group’s mission, the chorus and Hillel adviser said, is to make people aware that there is Jewish life at the school charged with educating the future leaders of the U.S. Army.

In the last year, the group has performed at synagogues in Palm Beach, Fla., and Rockville Centre, N.Y., and the Hillel at Yale, as well as at the dedication of the Arlington National Cemetery’s Jewish Chaplains Memorial.

Especially for older Jews who have served in the armed forces, Schwartz has found that the group serves as a point of connection.

The Jewish Chapel Choir is one of several singing groups at West Point — including Protestant, Catholic, and gospel — that serve as a form of outreach, showcasing the cadets’ and the institution’s religious diversity.

The choir itself is a diverse group, with Szablowski and other non-Jewish cadets taking part.

“All of these cadets are going to be officers, and they need to become aware of other cadets’ needs,” said Schwartz, who is Jewish and grew up in North Miami, Fla. “There is an expectation that they will respect our traditions.”

“I have learned more about Jewish culture than the beautiful songs,” said Szablowski, who only a few years earlier was the drum major at his high school in a region of California not known for having a large Jewish population. At West Point, he sees his fellow choir members as “really just a group of friends.”

“If I have Jewish members in my platoon, I will be able to understand them more,” he said.

The non-Jewish members of the chorus “learn a little bit of Hebrew and Jewish culture through the songs,” Hauptman said.

According to Schwartz, some of the Jewish members, who were more “secular” in their Jewish identification when they first come to West Point, learn a bit, too. “They find a Jewish home at West Point,” she said.

In addition to the private concert, Obama received a few early Chanukah gifts from the chorus.

The Jewish chaplain at West Point, Rabbi Maj. Shmuel Felzenberg, presented the first family with West Point Jewish Chapel coins.

Additionally, the cadets “wanted me to give him one of our kippahs,” said Schwartz, speaking of the gray head covering imprinted with the chorus’ name. The group had the kippah made from the same fabric used for the full dress uniforms they were wearing the day of the party.

According to Schwartz, the president said, “I have several yarmulkes, but none like this one.”

JTA Wire Service

 
 
 
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