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Monday, September 22, 2014

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Anchors aweigh in coastal Virginia

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The decommissioned Iowa-class battleship U.S.S. Wisconsin moored alongside downtown Norfolk, Va.

If you’ve ever doubted America’s military might, a trip to Norfolk, Va. will certainly change your mind.

Home to the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic Fleet command, Naval Station Norfolk encompasses an area of nearly a dozen kilometers and is home to the largest concentration of naval forces in the world.

Walking through the visitor’s facilities, the seemingly endless array of American military machines – including warships and military aircraft – one can’t help but wonder how any potentially threatening country could ever stand a chance.

Situated along a large, deepwater port on the shores of Chesapeake Bay, the city of Norfolk played a crucial role as a strategic port in both the American Revolutionary War and the U.S. Civil War. Between these periods, the city established itself as a major shipping centre for goods being imported and exported into the United States. This remains the case today, as the area is the second busiest port on the American east coast.    

But the greater Hampton Roads vicinity, a picturesque peninsula encompassing the cities of Norfolk, Newport News and Virginia Beach, retains its quaint charm in spite of the large military and industrial presence.

Downtown Norfolk, running the length of the city’s revitalized Waterside district, is the heart of the area’s business and financial sector. The vicinity also sports several marvelous tourist attractions.

Nauticus, the maritime themed science centre, and the Hampton Roads Naval Museum (located within the same complex) allow visitors to experience hands-on the seafaring culture that is integral to the area. Exhibits on driving freighters and tug-boats, as well as a history of Naval Station Norfolk are especially exciting for children.

Included within the admission price is a tour of the U.S.S. Wisconsin, moored alongside the museum. This decommissioned Iowa-class battleship saw action during most American military conflicts from World War II through Desert Storm. At nearly a thousand feet in length, the ship makes for an impressive sight amidst the buildings of downtown Norfolk. The tour includes a visit to its remarkable hull, which would be home to hundreds of sailors for months on end.

Norfolk’s Jewish community is nearly as old as the city itself, with the first Jews settling the area in the 1780s. The city’s first Jewish resident was perhaps its most infamous. Jacob Abrahams, who settled in the area in 1787, is alleged to have kidnapped a free black girl and sold her into slavery. While the allegations remain unproven, Norfolk’s Jewish community chooses to designate Moses Myers as the city’s first Jewish resident.

Myers, whose 18th-century house still stands and is an area tourist attraction, was a highly regarded maritime merchant. His business ventures used Virginia’s natural waterways to transport various goods to Norfolk and then out to sea. During the Civil War, Myers’ grandson famously defended the family home from invading Union troops by placing a British flag in front of the house and declaring himself a British subject. Not wanting to antagonize Britain during the conflict, the Union army moved on, leaving the house intact while leveling much of the city.

The Federalist-style home remained in the Myers family for several generations succeeding Moses. Following an extensive 2005 renovation, the home was returned to its former glory and vividly depicts Jewish life during American Colonial times. Walking through the house, one can see where annual Passover seders were held, Chanukah candles were lit and even indentations within doorways where mezuzot were once placed.

Today, Norfolk’s Jewish community resides mostly within the trendy Ghent district. The area, just a short drive from several major cruise ship docks at Waterside, is home to a vibrant and active community that spans the religious spectrum. Congregation Beth El, the oldest continuing synagogue in Norfolk, founded in 1844, serves the city’s Conservative community. Across the street is Norfolk’s Orthodox B’nai Israel Congregation, founded during the 1950s following the amalgamation of several smaller synagogues.

Whether you’re visiting the region with plans to board one of the many cruise ship lines, or even visiting nearby Colonial Williamsburg, make sure to include a stop in Norfolk and experience what this maritime city has to offer.

Michael Stavsky acknowledges the assistance of the Visit Norfolk Tourism Board and the Sheraton Waterside Hotel in arranging his family’s trip to Norfolk.

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