In 2007, Senator Carl Levin visited the aircraft carrier USS HARRY S. TRUMAN for a ceremony to add a Holocaust Torah to the ship’s chapel, donated by the Jewish Federation of Tidewater. (It is on loan to the ship until it is decommissioned, estimated at the ceremony for 41 years.) Little did Levin know that 16 years later the Navy’s newest ship, on June 24, 2023 – the guided missile destroyer USS CARL M. LEVIN (DDG 120) – would bear his name. Or that his three daughters, Erica, Laura, and Kate, the ship’s official sponsors, would end the commissioning ceremony with the words “officers and crew of the USS CARL M. LEVIN, man this ship and bring her to life!” Once those words were proclaimed, hundreds of officers and sailors in sparkling white uniforms ran in a long line to board the ship and stand proudly upon her decks. With this commissioning ceremony, the ship was transferred from the shipyard to the Navy.
The naming of ships is an incredible honor, and many ship classes have traditions to use names that represent cities, counties, states, individuals and in the case of some submarines, sea creatures! Locations often seek out the honor of having a ship named for them, although sometimes the process is tricky. For example, in 1983 the Navy was prepared to name a new nuclear submarine the USS Corpus Christi, until a number of Catholic politicians protested the idea of a warship bearing the title “Body of Christ” (the meaning of the Latin) – even though one WWII ship had already borne this name. The compromise was that the submarine was named “The USS City of Corpus Christi.” It was a wise compromise, I think, bringing to my mind the train memorialized in song, “The City of New Orleans.”
Of course, Navy ships have been named for distinguished Jews before, and it has already been decided that one future ship will be named for Ruth Bader Ginsburg. However, as far as I know this is the first one to be named for a Jewish member of Congress. As Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Levin once said that our military not only inspires us, but also unites us, because of the way military personnel work together despite partisan divides. This was an occasion when military and civilians united to honor him.
During my nearly three decades of active duty in the Navy – almost 25 of those years as a Jewish chaplain, after a Christian chaplain in the rivers of Vietnam first planted the idea in my mind to become a rabbi – I have participated in many ship ceremonies, all but one for U.S. Navy ships. The one exception was for the INS (Israel Naval Ship) Eilat, the first of three “corvette” (small warship) ships constructed in Pascagoula, MS, as part of a joint US-Israeli project, an initiative largely forgotten by most of the Jewish community. Admirals from both Israel and the US took part in that ceremony, and the decision to use a USN Jewish chaplain for the prayer was appreciated by all the participants.
I cannot claim Senator Levin as a personal friend, but he was certainly one of my personal heroes. However, whenever I had the honor of delivering a prayer in the Senate, he made sure to come up to me afterwards, grasping my hand in a firm handshake, a smile on his face, beaming with pride. Plus, as a staunch advocate of the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, he was proud that I delivered the prayer at the official presidential ceremony to repeal it.
For these reasons and more, I was delighted to be invited to participate in the commissioning, but because the ceremony was on Shabbat, I almost couldn’t do it. I would be put up at the Four Seasons Hotel in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor so that I could give the invocation and benediction at the Friday night gala. Walking the three miles or so from the hotel to the shipyard would not be a problem for me. But the challenge was walking the short distance from the gate of the shipyard to the ship itself. The shipyard had a hard-and-fast prohibition of pedestrians – anyone not directly working in construction – in that area, based on both safety and security concerns.
Retired Navy Rear Admiral Victor See co-chaired the commissioning committee. A proud Catholic but like many Navy leaders a fighter for the rights of others, he personally went to bat for me, explaining to the shipyard authorities that I could not ride on shabbat, but his request was turned down. It wasn’t until the fourth try – when he said he was formally making a “religious accommodation request” on my behalf –that a compromise was reached. There were some golf carts traveling between the ship and the gate, and even though I wouldn’t ride in one, arrangements were made to allow me to walk alongside one. The cart was enough, the shipyard decided, to protect me as we navigated our way to the ship.
Both Secretary of the Navy Carlos Del Toro and Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday – the highest civilian and military leaders in the Navy – participated in the commissioning ceremony. Both were briefed on the fact that I would be walking because of Shabbat, and both were proud, I’m told, that the Navy had “refused to give up the ship” to ensure my participation.
“Tenacious in the fight” is the motto of the new ship, and in my prayers I note this phrase applies just as much to Carl Levin as it does to the ship that now bears his name. What most of the men and women involved with this ship will never know is that phrase also applies to the commissioning ceremony team that refused to take no for an answer when it came to respecting and accommodating my religious needs!
The Navy’s newest ship not only has a name that honors a true Jewish American hero, but also began its first day in the Navy with a commissioning ceremony blessed by a rabbi.
Some excerpts from my prayers:
From Friday night’s invocation: “Almighty God, as we break bread, give thanks for food, we recall all those who hunger still: not for bread alone, but for freedom, dignity, respect, and hope. Carl Levin championed the fight for better times and better lives: lives more respected, lives more protected…. Tenacious in the fight: apt words both for Levin and the proud and mighty ship that bears his name, prepared to serve when duty calls, prepared to fight – and win – when fight we must….May the actions of this ship and crew bring honor to our Navy and our nation, just as the man whose name it bears brought honor to us, blessed us all.”
From Friday night’s benediction: “Almighty God, as I look around this room, inspired by words that reflect our freedoms, values, dreams, the words that strike me now come from a Broadway song: ‘Our hearts are warm, our bellies are full, and we are feeling prime. This was a real nice clambake, and we all had a real good time.’ Carl Levin would approve these words, I think, because even as he pushed himself to his limits, worked tirelessly for better times, the twinkle in his eye and the smile on his face were reminders that he rejoiced in life’s happy moments. We give thanks that we have been granted life and brought to this occasion, this extraordinarily happy moment. [Note: Jewish readers will realize that I just included the shehechiyanu!] As our bellies are full now, may our hearts swell with pride tomorrow, as we commission the USS CARL M LEVIN with a ceremony that will honor the men and women who worked to create her, and the officers and crew that will command and guide her. May it be a ceremony that reflects the proudest traditions of our Navy, and a moment that brings to life the poet’s words: ‘Fare thee well. The ship I ready.’”
From the commissioning ceremony invocation: “O God who bidst the mighty ocean deep its own appointed limits keep [Note: from the Navy Hymn], we stand in awe of the seas that reflect your creation and the handiwork of the men and women, civilian and military alike, responsible for this proud and mighty ship that will sail upon them. Theodore Roosevelt, not only former president, but also Assistant SECNAV first, taught that a good Navy is the surest guarantor of peace – but that peace itself is not the highest good, unless it comes as the handmaiden of righteousness: justice between people and justice between nations. May this ship and crew forever reflect our nation’s strength in pursuit of peace with justice. And, if they fight, if fight they must, may they reflect the honor, courage, and commitment [note: these are the Navy’s three core values] of those who served before, and all those who serve today: ‘Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead’ and ‘tenacious in the fight’ – like the man whose name this ship now bears.”
From the commissioning ceremony benediction: “Lord God who made the heavens and the earth, the seas and all that dwell therein, we give thanks for the world and its beauty, but those who go down to the sea in ships know the grandeur of creation in a special way. One poet wrote that ‘ships are the nearest things to dreams that hands have ever made, for…in their…hearts the soul of a song is laid.’ The prophets knew this song of ships and seas when they proclaimed ‘Sing God’s praise anew from around the world, all who sail the sea’ ….May Carl Levin’s legacy of integrity and moral courage inspire us to make our world a better place…. May those who go down to the sea in this ship, the USS CARL M LEVIN, inspire songs of praise from all whose lives they touch, as a symbol of strength and a beacon of hope for all who dream of, pray for, better times.”
And may we say Amen.