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An Israeli air crew drops in for dinner | Soldiers away from home visit Island family for Sabbath dinner

Israeli team Flight Engineer Captain Tomer and air crew Captain Amit of the Israeli Air Force (no last names given for security reasons) take a break on the airstrip tarmac at McChord Air Force Base. The pair is part of a 30-member delegation that competed in the 2009 Air Mobility RODEO. The team was awarded the 2009 Colonel Joe Jackson Award for Best C-130 Hercules air crew. - Contributed photo
Israeli team Flight Engineer Captain Tomer and air crew Captain Amit of the Israeli Air Force (no last names given for security reasons) take a break on the airstrip tarmac at McChord Air Force Base. The pair is part of a 30-member delegation that competed in the 2009 Air Mobility RODEO. The team was awarded the 2009 Colonel Joe Jackson Award for Best C-130 Hercules air crew.
— image credit: Contributed photo

While the Island was abuzz with talk of the Blue Angels air show, a local Mercer Island family was hosting their own group of high-fliers for Friday evening Shabbat.

On Friday, July 17, Mikhail and Bluma Ekshtut welcomed 18 members of the Israeli Air Force into the family home to celebrate the Jewish Sabbath. The airmen were part of a military delegation sent to participate in the 2009 Air Mobility RODEO, a biannual military-readiness competition at the nearby McChord Air Force Base.

Working at the base under the 446th Air Lift Wing as a reservist, Mikhail Ekshtut got wind of their involvement when RODEO staff requested his help in provisioning the Israelis with kosher food and looking after their needs. Since he was laid off in April from Fehr & Peers/Mirai, a Kirkland-based transportation engineering company, Mikhail picked up duties at the airbase as the NCO in-charge of chapel operations. Volunteering for this new assignment, the observant Jew — fluent in “rudimentary” Hebrew — set about getting his charges to feel at home.

Team Israel flew over several C-130 Hercules aircraft, the four-engine, propeller-driven cargo aircraft popular with militaries around the world. Mikhail noted that one of the planes brought by the Israelis was involved in the 1976 Entebbe Raid, a counter-terrorism operation involving the rescue of 100 hostages from an Israeli passenger jet in Uganda.

Soon after they arrived, he told his wife, Bluma, that he couldn’t think of a better way to welcome them than an invitation to their Gallagher Hill home for Shabbat, or the Jewish Sabbath.

“We’ve hosted about 10 to 12 people before,” Mikhail said. “We had help from the community for this one.”

Speaking to the Mercer Island Reporter a few days after his visit to the Ekshtut home, Team Israel member Captain Amit (last name not given for security reasons) marveled at the verdant, natural beauty of Mercer Island. He said he was impressed that such a place so close to an urban center such as Seattle had preserved so much of its natural character, and he admired the hilltop views overlooking the Town Center and the Island.

“I was very surprised in a positive way,” he said.

When asked about the differences between Israel and the United States, Amit said he didn’t realize the immense size of the United States until it took his crew over seven hours to cross it on their way here.

“Israel is small but has a little bit of everything,” he said. “Here in America, everything is so big: the highways are six, seven lanes wide each way ... Our cars are half the size of your cars.”

The Pacific Northwest’s long summer evenings gave the family and fellow members of their Orthodox Jewish congregation, Shevet Achim, plenty of time to snap photos of their unusual and feted guests before the sun had set (the use of electricity is prohibited on the Sabbath, beginning Fridays at sundown until the following sunset).

“It was a real honor to have them here and give back to them, for all that they do in their military,” Bluma said.

Every Friday evening, members of Mercer Island’s Jewish community mark the twilight with the Kiddush, a blessing which translates from Hebrew as “sanctification” of the Jewish Sabbath, or Shabbat. When the Ekshtuts decided on inviting the whole delegation, word quickly went around the congregation to show their kindred guests a warm welcome with food, drink, candles and song.

Mikhail said he was amazed by the enthusiasm from their fellow congregants, especially from their friend, Terri Schneeweiss, who arrived with armfuls of kosher meat from the Mercer Island Albertsons grocery store. When the table was set, piles of teriyaki hotdogs, sweet-and-sour meatballs, homemade brisket and orange chicken were part of the dinner spread.

“[They] were just kvelling and felt really welcome and appreciative of the honor showed them,” Mikhail said. But he also said it was equally important to recognize their shared heritage in the Jewish faith, which they followed in the Kiddush blessing over the traditional challah bread.

“It was not only a party but an uplifting spiritual experience,” he said. “A lot of them are not observant, but the sanctification (and blessing) was very nostalgic to them.”

Along with the Israelis, six other nations and dozens of U.S. air crews competed in the 2009 RODEO. The competition focused on exercises such as air drop, air refueling, aeromedical evacuation and cargo delivery operations by various types of military transport aircraft, such as C-5, C-17 and C-130 aircraft.

By the looks of things, Team Israel’s visit was a great success. They ended the 2009 RODEO competition with the Col. Joe Jackson award, honoring the best C-130 air crew. But in the Ekshtut family and Congregation Shevet Achim, they also found a home away from home on Mercer Island.

“They got me very excited, being there in this place,” Amit said.

“We’d been there only for a few hours, but we got a good feeling from our short time there.”

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