Technical Sergeant, U.S. Air Force
Mikhail Ekshtut was born in Kiev, Ukraine. In 1976, when he was 5, his family immigrated to the United States and settled in Seattle. He grew up mostly nonobservant, but maintained some connection to Judaism during the summers when he would attend a Chabad day camp.
As a child, I always wanted to serve my country. By nature I was machmir (strict) and never did anything in a half-hearted way, so I decided that I would join the best fighting force in the world, the U.S. Marine Corps. My parents, who escaped the USSR to keep me from having to serve in the Soviet military, thought I was crazy. On Feb. 8, 1989, four days after my 18th birthday, I shipped off to Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego.
TSgt. Ekshtut went on to serve overseas in Okinawa, Korea, the Philippines and Bangladesh. During the first Gulf War, he was deployed for seven months on a Navy ship in the Middle East. That winter, he lit Chanukah candles in the middle of the Persian Gulf.
After four years of active duty, he continued to serve in the Marine Reserves. After graduating college as a civil engineer, he spent a few months in Israel where he decided he needed to learn more about what it means to be a Jew.
After several years of learning, I was going to synagogue every Shabbat, putting on tefillin every morning and trying to keep kosher. The only time I could not keep the Sabbath was when I was doing my monthly weekend duty in the Reserves. It was not that I wasnt allowed on the contrary, the more observant I became, the more supportive everyone was. I lit candles and made “Kiddush” in the barracks on Friday night, and my friends would even do the “labors” that were prohibited for me on the Sabbath. But in the Reserves, Saturday is the main training day.
It was time for me to make a decision: leave my beloved Marine Corps or stay in the Marines and not be so machmir one weekend a month. After nearly 13 years of service, I left the military to keep Shabbat.
But it wasn’t long before he came back…
TSgt. Ekshtut now serves as an Air Force Reserve Chaplain Assistant. His job now is to provide religious and spiritual support to the members of the Air Force and to our entire Armed Forces. He was recently called up to active duty and volunteered to serve in support Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Now, as a Chaplains Assistant, and an observant Jew, it is his job to seek out the fellow Jews and to provide them with an opportunity for religious observance. He told me that he wants others to know that you can be observant and serve in the military. He tries to instill in fellow Jews that he meets that it is important to remember to be a good Jew first and then a good soldier.
In Kuwait, he found a total of five other Jews on base.
In the course of my networking, and procurement of kosher wine for Shabbat (the local Arab customs officers had confiscated my supply upon arrival, because alcohol is contraband in Muslim countries), I also found out that a nearby Army camp had more Jewish soldiers there, and they were throwing a Shabbat/Chanukah party on Friday the 26th, the last night of the festival. It was no simple matter to arrange the logistics and transportation for this trip, but I have found that when you try to do Gods will, He matches your effort. We arrived shortly before sunset, just in time to light the menorah and the Shabbat candles. I could now take off my pistol and welcome the Shabbos Queen.
Other Jewish soldiers also started trickling in; most were coming from other camps as well. Eventually, we were even able to make a minyan. We started the service by kindling the lights. It was quite a sight to see. The Shabbat candles and a dozen fully lit menorahs all standing on one table and burning brightin the middle of the Arab Middle East no less!
The Jews that had gathered together that night were a mixed bunch, Army and Air Force, Officers and Enlisted, young and old, and everybody with a different background. Most of our congregation had Reform or Conservative upbringings. One kid however, was the son of an Orthodox congregational Rabbi.
The Chanukah party was a blast! We had lots of kosher snacks, sodas and Kedem grape juice. The Colonel made potato latkes for us, and I cut up and passed around a kosher salami that was sent to me.
TSgt. Ekshtut is currently serving at McChord AFB in Seattle, Washington after recently returning from a 3-month deployment in Kuwait and Iraq. Through his story and the stories of the soldiers and airmen he meets he hopes that being an observant Jew and serving one’s country will be seen as going hand in hand.