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The Few, The Proud,  The...Jewish?

The Few, The Proud, The...Jewish?

I had indispensable training in becoming an observant Jew: the U.S. Marines.


In the entire U.S. military there are about 50 Orthodox Jews -- and I am one of them.

I was born in Kiev, Ukraine, and in 1976, when I was five, my parents, sister and I immigrated to Seattle. I grew up mostly not observant, but maintained some connection to Judaism during the summers when I would attend a Chabad day camp. My family and I would also go to Seattle's Chabad House once in a while during the holidays, mostly for the free food and ample vodka.

As a kid I always wanted to serve my country. By nature I was stringent and never did anything in a half-hearted way, so I decided that I would join the best fighting force in the world, the United States Marines.

The typical Jewish reaction was: "What's a nice Jewish boy doing in the Marines?" My parents, who escaped the USSR to keep me from having to serve in the Soviet military, thought I was crazy. I showed them! On February 8, 1989, four days after my 18th birthday, I shipped off to Marine Corps Recruit Depot, San Diego.

On the third day of boot camp, a mean drill instructor approached the platoon and barked, "All my Jews, stand up!"

On the third day of boot camp, we were sitting in formation when a mean drill instructor (they are all mean) approached the platoon and barked, "All my Jews, stand up!" I thought to myself, "Here we go -- the persecution of the Jews is about to begin." Out of 87 recruits, I was the only one to stand up. He ordered me to report to a Major standing off in the distance, which I nervously did.

I saluted and said, "Sir, Private Ekshtut reporting as ordered, Sir!"

Mikhail Ekshtut

I will never forget the first thing he said to me. "Do you know that you are one tenth of one percent of all of Marines in the Marine Corps?" He introduced himself as Major Goldberg or some similar Jewish name, and explained that only one in a thousand Marines is Jewish. He then invited me to attend Friday night services at the nearby Navy chapel. I accepted.

I went on to serve overseas, in exotic locations like Okinawa, Korea, the Philippines and Bangladesh. During the first Gulf War, I was deployed for seven months on a Navy ship in the Middle East. That winter, I lit Chanukah candles in the middle of the Persian Gulf.

After four years of active duty, I continued to serve one weekend a month and two weeks a year in the Marine Reserves. After graduating college as a Civil Engineer, I spent a few months in Israel where I decided I 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 teffilin 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 wasn't 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 work that was 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 observe the Sabbath fully, one weekend a month?

After nearly 13 years of service, I left the military to keep Shabbat.

A lot of what I learned in the Marines made me a better Jew. Jewish observance is similar to military training, except you don't have to sweat as much or crawl in the mud.

Being a Marine taught me self-discipline and responsibility, how to answer to a "higher authority," the value of teamwork, family and community, pride and self-esteem. By being charged by the real Commander-in-Chief, God, to wake up early and go to minyan, put on teffilin, pray three times a day, keep kosher and live in a Jewish community, we acquire some of the same qualities that the military teaches.

So for me, becoming an observant Jew was a straightforward transition. Nothing else would suffice. I continue to learn and grow Jewishly. I'm even on the board of my synagogue now.

I ask myself, would I want my son, when one day God grants me one, to join the military? In both good Jewish and military tradition, I will cross that bridge when I get to it. My more immediate objective is to find my besheret (soul mate). However, I know that if my son does ever serve in the military, he'll be a better man and a better servant of God because of it.

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Visitor Comments: 57

(53) Rebekah Twilley, January 13, 2016 6:13 AM

As an American Jew, my heart has always belonged to two countries: Israel and the USA. The only flag that strikes to the root of patriotism more than my red, white, and blue is the Israeli banner. Growing up just south of the mason dixon in a rural part of the east coast, the population of Jews has never been abundent, and it has always been a struggle to feel the religious support that a thriving Jewish community brings. I have sometimes watched as my Catholic friends all attend mass and speak of God together with genuine love and desire to grow towards Him, it hits me how beautiful it would be to experience Judaism in that way. Although Hashem has blessed me with an incredible, God-loving family, and amazing friends to encourage me. My best friend is Catholic, and we are endless supportive of each other's walks with God. Still, i have hoped to find a group of peers that share the view of Judaism and a relationship with God not as simply following traditions without personal growth, but as something relevant to everyday life and applicable to every decision. Unfortunately, support for that seems to be rare in the young adult community. Prayerfully it won't always be that way. Although I will be, Lord willing, spending at least a year studying at Aish, and another two serving in the IDF, I've always been an All-American Girl, and wonder if following Judaism to Israel will mean eventually giving up America all together. There is obviously no question, if "All-Israeli" is how God wants me--I'll follow where He takes me. But I hope there's a way I can grow spiritually, and show my love for both of these beautiful countries. I suppose the point of this long tangent was simply to say that It is beautiful to hear how Hashem has worked in your life to do so much for your people and your country. Thank you, sir, for your service, and thank you for sharing.

(52) Steve Marcus, August 8, 2015 1:49 PM

thank you for your service!

Just finished reading "Semper Chai" (Howard J. Leavitt, XLibris, 2002) and was shocked to not see three Jewish Marines mentioned, not even in passing:
1) Actress Bea Arthur (even though she was ashamed of it)
2) Actor Harvey Keitel
3) Miranda Bloch, WWII Women Marines

When I was in high school I was gung-ho to join the US Military but my Zionism won out and I immigrated to Israel, eventually serving in the Nachal infantry brigade.

(51) Anonymous, February 26, 2015 11:14 PM

Wow! May I share this...

Thank you for sharing your story. My classmate in college was a Polish Catholic. She first went the evangelical route. Then she decided to convert to Jewish Orthodoxy. Fortunately, she married first and then they both converted. Her husband was Irish Catholic, childhood sweethearts, and he too was a proud marine! I do not know how they made it but they did.

(50) Melech ben Judah, August 31, 2014 4:51 PM

Déjà vu

I experienced a similar experience while in boot camp in the 50's. My DI, an avowed anti-semite would announce, "get my yids up here" and then say, "as you were, get my Jewish detail up here for church", Sabbath services were held on Sunday, for everyone. I remember waiting for the bus that would whisk us off to services in an empty office building where the Jews went into one classroom and the Seventh Day Adventists went into another, I was surprised to find that there were about two dozen recruits from every platoon on Parris Island. In addition, there were about ten non-recruits including, I recall a Major General. What impressed me the most was the camaraderie that we felt. Even the General asked us to refer to him by his first name while at services. The Chaplain was an ordained Rabbi from a local Temple near PI. They must have all passed the word to the "closet" Jews, because the following week, the numbers had doubled. A few guys told us that there were others who did not admit that they were Jewish for fear of being attacked by other recruits. I told them they should tell the deniers that if they were afraid of being attacked, get out of the Corps. It was a stupid comment, but then again, I was 17.

(49) Michael Teichman Corbett, April 28, 2013 8:42 PM

Being a Jewish Marine means not allwoing the mindless comments to affect your discipline and demeanor. Marines do the right thing, even those who know no better come to understand that a Marine is a Marine no matter his faith. After the Corps, think about the Jewish War Veterans of the USA, an opportunity to connect with others who have served during times of conflict and remain Jewish. I attended one Friday night service in Boot Camp (1964) and, attended a meeting about the "6-day war" in 1967, led by the Jewish Chaplain at PI. Other than that, the sum total of my religious experience in the USMC was saying the 'shema' every day in Vietnam. Frankly, I did not see much connection between the military and my Judaism until I joined the JWV so many years later; wish I had that connection while on duty.

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