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

Interior of the U.S. Air Force Academy’s Jewish chapel. Photo: John T. Stemple.

May 7, 2013 (*Updated April 10, 2018) — 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.

B-52 display at the U.S. Air Force Academy. Photo: John T. Stemple.

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.

Co-author Susan Gale examines a Czech Torah scroll that was saved during the Holocaust. Photo: John T. 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 U.S. Air Force Academy Chapel building. Photo: John T. 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.

A panoramic view of the U.S. Air Force Academy grounds. Photo: John T. 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 on display in the Jewish chapel foyer. Photo: John T. 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.

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.”

An F-15 and F-4 on the Quad. Photo: John T. Stemple.

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.”

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.

F-16 and cadets on the Quad. Photo: John T. Stemple.

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.”

*Update: USAFA has adjusted its timetable for repairing the Cadet Chapel building. The Academy planned to close the chapel this summer but will delay the initiative until February 2019. Construction teams will be employed to complete renovations over the next three to four years. A major tasking will be to repair leaks by strengthening the structure’s aluminum skin, stiffening the steel frame, and installing a water barrier. Additionally, some 24,000 pieces of stained glass will be cleaned. Most of the work will disrupt services within the Protestant chapel, which is located on the upper floor. During the process USAFA plans to provide other worship locations for Protestants.

F-105 on the Quad. Photo: John T. Stemple.



The authors (John T. 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.

Air Force Academy offers first look at design for new welcome center

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

Hillel: United States of America Constitution Preamble

Israel Defense Forces Facebook Page

Jewish Welfare Board Jewish Chaplains Council


Sholomo Katz

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

U.S. Air Force Academy

U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel

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

U.S. Air Force Cadet Chaplain Corps

U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel Fact Sheet

U.S. Air Force Academy Cadet Chapel

U.S. Air Force Academy Visitor Map

U.S. Air Force Chaplains Corps