Mikhail Ekshtut

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.


  • Michael,

    I’m from Russia. Currently live in Minnesota. I’m Jewish. I’m writing article for veterans of WWII. I would like to ask you couple questions. Please email to me. alla4you@yahoo.com

    Thank you,


  • David Gratvol

    Dear Michael,

    I am the son of Russian immigrants (refusniks) and over the past few years I have grown to be a proud religious Jew but at 19 I still have the desire to serve in the United States Reserves. Is their any way I can do this without compromising my observance of Shabbat? Please write to me a Gratvol@yahoo.com

  • A1C Arshadnia

    hi im writting because im jewish and im in the air force im corrently stationed at nellis afb, and am amazed at the things that you have done god bless you.

  • Harold Reisman

    I received a copy of your article from “Nurit”. I am much too old to be in the service but believe that the Marines are our only war fighters. If you have a chance to visit the Marine Museum in San Diego (I went there almost as soon as we moved to Carlsbad) I would be happy to meet you there. You were probably inducted nearby or at the same location. The “Midway” is another place to meet. I just want to wish you a hearty “Yasher Koach” as well as “Semper Fi”. Please keep me on your e-mail list for your future writings.

  • ira berkowitz

    i am a jew who served in viet nam, in the us army signal corps.  i don’t recall meeting any other jews during my three years in the service. i often made a point of mentioning my heritage to other guys. 

    because i was more naieve then, i thought that NO ONE had a problem with me and my heritage.  most of the guys were OK with me.  I had a few problems, but I never encountered anything that I couldn’t handle. 

    i would gladly serve again, now, if i could.

    your story is unique, interesting, and uplifting.  thank you for your service, and all the best to you.

  • Bobbi Campbell


    I had to look twice at your picture… What are you doing with our rubbish British Rifle?  Its trash!  Why use that when you guys get M4s?  Please dont tell me the US are issuing SA80s to you guys now!

    Cool article though mate.  I was looking for some other Jews when I was in Afghanistan and had some friends doing an email search for me.  I heard a rumour that there was a Seder in Khandahar, but unfortunatly I was on Ops against the Taliban.  Then just as I leaving and was part way home in Cyprus, I read an email inviting me to a Seder two days previous!

    Also, I had an Estonian Company under my command and two of my soldiers were soooo obviously Jewish, but would not admit to it.  Anyway, good article.

  • Mikhail,

    I’m not sure exactly how I wondered onto this site, but I am glad that I did.  Your life’s story was very encouraging.

    Although I am not Jewish, I am a Christian, I love the Jewish people and pray for them almost daily.  It is especially great to see an American (Russian) Jewish man who has served our country.  Thank you. Our future son-in-law is an ex-Marine who served in Afghanistan.

    And thank you for taking your faith into the Armed Services to serve your fellow men/women.  I respect your decision to follow obeying the Sabbath.

    Please know that there are many who love the Jewish people and pray G-d’s best for you. A favorite verse of mine is Malachi 3:16.



  • edwin michael gitlin


    as you can see i have your first name as my middle name. my grand father Abraham came from Kiev over a hundred years ago. i am second generation american, served in the us army 71-72. my father Leo served in WWII and my younger brother Bruce served in the air force and army. his son adam was in the 82nd airborne in the 1990’s.although i am not a very observant jew, i never hide that i am jewish even when i was in the army and got into arguments and a few physical altercations(yes fights) over my faith. i wish you a good and long life. i will have you in my prayers this rosh hasanah and yom kippur. as jew and an american i would also like to say thank u for protecting me and my family and this great country.L’SHANA TOVA 5769 from Ezra Mikhail and his family

  • Hi Michael,

    Are you the Michael I was so fortunate to meet in Hawaii before you head off to the Iraqi War?

    If so, I have tried to find you several times and wish to communicate further if you would like. I have left you my email address. I am so excited if you are one and the same…