John Lehman, secretary of the U.S. Navy under President Ronald Reagan, said that he hopes one day, somebody will make a feature film about the exploits of Uriah Phillips Levy, the first American Jew to rise to the rank of commodore.
Whether or not that ever happens, it might be hard to imagine a bigger production than the Dec. 17 dedication ceremony for the statue of Levy at Congregation Mikveh Israel on Independence Mall.
At the dedication ceremony for the Uriah Levy statue are: (from left) Retired Capt. Gary "Yuri" Tabach; John Lehman, a former secretary of the Navy; Rear Adm. Herman Shelanski; and Joshua Landes.
Lehman, author of On Seas of Glory: Heroic Men, Great Ships and Epic Battles of the U.S. Navy, gave the keynote address in a program loaded with 15 speakers, including a historical re-enactor. More than 450 people -- including 180 students from the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School -- packed into the Mikveh Israel sanctuary for the two-hour program.
"This is a national event. It is going to impact generations to come," Lehman said, calling the 1,000-plus-pound bronze likeness of Levy the finest statue in Philadelphia. "You have ensured that the memory of Uriah Levy will be for a blessing."
Levy, who died in 1862, was famous for abolishing flogging in the Navy and later for purchasing the home of Thomas Jefferson. Marc Leepson, author of Saving Monticello, helped draft the lengthy description of Levy's life that adorns the base of the statue. It contained Levy's declaration that he was "an American, a sailor and a Jew."
The artwork was financed by two graduates of the Akiba Hebrew Academy: One is Joshua Landes, a wealth manager who now lives in New York and is the son of Rabbi Aaron Landes, a retired rear admiral in the Navy. The other is Captain Gary "Yuri" Tabach, a recently retired Navy captain. A host of Jewish organizations co-sponsored the program and lunch reception.
Most of the program focused on Levy's military exploits. Next year marks the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. Levy was a veteran of that war, when he was captured by the British.
Jay Leberman, Perelman's head of school, said students from the fifth through eighth grades needed to be at the program because it was important for them to know about the contribution that Jewish Americans have made -- and continue to make -- to the U.S. military.
Rear Adm. Herman A. Shelanski, commander of an aircraft carrier strike group, seemed to be directly addressing the students when he spoke of the rewards of a Navy career. The Wynnewood native said that he'd experienced his faith in extraordinary settings, such as lighting the Chanukah candles on a vessel on the high seas, in the middle of a hurricane, when his ship was being pounded by 60-foot waves.
"Unlike Uriah Levy, I can say that I have not dueled in my life," Shelanski said, referring to the instance where Levy ultimately killed another officer after facing anti-Semitic insults. "What I found was a Navy that appreciated me for my abilities."
Russian sculptor Gregory Pototsky, with his unkempt beard and long, grey hair, seemed out of place next to so many military personnel. Through a translator, Pototsky -- using sweeping gestures -- told the audience that he decided to take on the project only after he learned that the warrior had outlawed flogging in the Navy.
He called Levy a man who exuded love and kindness.
After the program, Noah Feinberg, a fifth grader at Perelman's Forman Center, said he was captivated by Levy's story and interested in American history, especially anything to do with the military.
"I have visited Monticello. They said a lot about him there. They really talked about him a lot on the tour," said Feinberg, who added that last week's dedication program was a little on the long side. "I mean we're 11 -- speeches aren't our thing."