Mikhail Ekshtut is a warrior. His mom is a worrier.
So when the Air Force Reserve called Ekshtut up to active duty in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, he had a problem. One of the relatively few Orthodox Jews in the American military, Technical Sergeant Ekshtut hesitated to commit an untruth. But he also guessed that his mother would be consumed by anxiety if she knew where her boy was headed. So he told a little white lie.
“My mom thinks I’m in Turkey,” he told the Forward, “so don’t tell her otherwise.”
Actually, his white lie wasn’t exclusively for his mother’s sake; the intelligence section at the unit to which Ekshtut is currently assigned advised him that he cannot disclose which Arab country he is in. “I can’t disclose names or places or my mission details,” he explained. He can say, however, that he works with Air Force Special Operations, whose squadrons provided air cover to the elite troops that grabbed Saddam Hussein out of a hole last month.
Ekshtut, 32, is a chaplain assistant, in which capacity he has served since transferring last year to the Air Force Reserve from the Marines. His duties include providing security for the chaplains, accompanying them — “armed and dangerous,” he said, with a 9mm pistol — when they venture outside the base.
Ekshtut, a cheerful fellow with a mischievous grin and a certain military swagger, downplays the level of danger. “There have been only a few incidents around, out in town,” he said. “So yeah, there’s potential danger, but not immediate danger.”
Life on the base is relatively secure, he noted, and sometimes downright lighthearted. When the holiday season rolled around, for instance, Ekshtut had the chance to share some Chanukah traditions with his unit.
“I got a package from the Aleph Institute, which is a Chabad organization,” he said. “They send out these packages with menorahs, candles, dreidels and little tiny pamphlets for Chanukah. All these goodies, but there’s only a couple of Jews to give them to. So I distributed them to some of the people around here. I even gave a pink one to my commanding officer. So at the daily briefing, he whips out the dreidel and says: ‘Did any of you guys get your dreidel? I’ve got mine and we’re going to start doing dreidel checks.’ So he gives me the floor, and I had to stand up and tell everyone about the basics of Chanukah.”
If there are no Jews around to minister to, it’s not a problem. Ekshtut and the chaplain he’s assigned to work with, an Episcopalian, serve soldiers of all faiths and denominations. “By teaching the goyim about Judaism,” he said, “I want to be a Kiddush Hashem” — a sanctification of God’s name in the world. But Ekshtut has a special yen to discover fellow Jews in the military, to “find out where they are in terms of their yidishkayt, invite them to a Shabbes service, light Chanukah candles or put on tefillin.”
That’s why he tried to sneak an extra set of tefillin into the undisclosed Arab country. To reach their current location, he and his chaplain flew on commercial airlines, which, they learned on arrival, lost their luggage. Their bags turned up a couple of days later, but the captain who met him at the airport reported the bad news: “The customs guys took your religious stuff,” Ekshtut recalled his captain saying. “They found your four bottles of wine and those black boxes. Oh, and they also took some little black book. I didn’t know what the black boxes were for. I told them they were religious incense holders or something.”
The wine was kosher, to say kiddush over on the Sabbath. The little black prayer book was a military-issue siddur. But the tefillin were the really precious items.
Ekshtut and the captain returned to the airport, where the latter did the talking. In the end, a customs agent returned everything but the wine. In a plastic shopping bag marked with Arabic writing, there were the siddur and the tefillin, the latter in a big mess, all unwrapped like a bundle of black spaghetti but otherwise intact.
“When you’re away from home,” Ekshtut reflected, “you really learn to value mitzvot, like tefillin, that outside America aren’t always so easy to do.”
Though he’s sometimes called on to act as if he were a member of the clergy, Ekshtut is a relative newcomer to this way of life. He was born in the Ukraine and immigrated to America with his family when he was 6 years old. Settling in Seattle, the Ekshtuts occasionally attended a local Chabad, mainly for the free vodka, and cared enough about being Jewish to let Mikhail — who goes by “Mike” — be circumcised at his own initiative at the advanced age of 11. Otherwise, he knew little about his ancestral religion, although he retained a definite sentimental attachment to it.
In the first Gulf War, in 1991, he saw combat in Kuwait as a Marine artillery meteorologist. He lit Chanukah candles aboard a military vessel in the Persian Gulf while oil fields burned on shore. But in the years following the war, he became more observant, keeping kosher and observing the Sabbath. And his growing fascination with Judaism started to come into conflict with his love affair with the Marine Corps.
Three years ago, Ekshtut was serving in the Marines Reserve while working as a civil engineer in the Seattle area. Reserve training was held one weekend a month at the nearby Whidbey Island Naval Air Station. That meant one Sabbath out of four had to be spent in intensive Marine training — not exactly a model of traditional Jewish observance. He had reached a crisis point in his life: It was either Judaism or the Marines. He chose Judaism.
Giving up his cherished Marine Corps pained him, but then a chance meeting with a rabbi in the Air Force chaplain corps provided a happy resolution. The rabbi suggested that Ekshtut transfer to the Air Force Reserve as a chaplain assistant, where observing the Sabbath wouldn’t be a problem. He quickly did so.
Even in his current situation, however, being Jewish in the military brings certain challenges. “The difficulties are personal ones,” Ekshtut said. “Keeping Shabbes can be tricky, because in a combat environment people aren’t used to someone not doing any work for a whole day. I’ll try not to turn on a light or touch a pen or whatnot. Thank God, I’ve been able to keep Shabbes the two weeks I’ve been here so far.”
Getting kosher food is another problem, he said. “They provide me with kosher MREs” — Meals Ready to Eat — “that taste like preservatives. Apart from that, I have to really watch what I eat. I have canned tuna, and I found some chips and salsa at the PX. At the chow hall I pretty much only eat salad and eggs. Some stuff might be suspect, like the waffles. They’re Aunt Jemima, imported from the States.”
Despite these inconveniences, Ekshtut said he loves serving in the American military. After all, who wouldn’t want to defend a country where the toughest ethical dilemma facing an observant soldier is: The waffles, are they kosher?