Immigrant IAF Pilot Fights to Be Recognized as a Jew

The blue-eyed, 24-year-old immigrant from Ukraine arrived in Israel nine years ago.

The Israel Air Force will receive its first non-Jewish pilot next week, when Andrei (whose last name is classified) receives his wings at the end of a long flight course.

The blue-eyed, 24-year-old immigrant from Ukraine arrived in Israel nine years ago, in the framework of the Jewish Agency's Na'aleh study program for youngsters with Jewish backgrounds from the former Soviet Union, arriving ahead of their parents.

His Jewish father and non-Jewish mother had planned to immigrate to Israel after him, but the plan did not work out. His mother and father will, however, come to the ceremony to see him receive his wings and become an F-16 fighter pilot.

His entry into flight school was different from that of most cadets. When Andrei enlisted, he was sent to the Armored Corps as a combatant in a tank crew. He then became a commander, and eventually an officer. He used his time in the army, he says, to perfect his Hebrew. He also began the Israel Defense Forces' Nativ program for conversion into Judaism.

The program was devised as part of the government and the Jewish Agency's efforts to convert to Judaism the 300,000 people who immigrated to Israel under the Law of Return from the former Soviet Union.

Meanwhile, Andrei repeatedly sent applications to get accepted to flight school - but they were all promptly declined. "I thought that maybe it was because of it," he says, referring to the fact that he is not considered Jewish according to halakha, Jewish law. Today he says he knows that was not the reason.

"Nowhere in the army - including flight school, of course - have I been treated differently because I'm not defined as Jewish," he says. "The commanders treated me just as they treated everyone else."

While he was participating in the Nativ course, which seeks to teach non-Jewish soldiers about Judaism, Zionism, and the State of Israel, he received a positive response from the Air Force. He was in. To enter that class, Andrei had to drop the Nativ program before appearing before its special rabbinical tribunal, which could convert him into Judaism.

"I wanted to take the course to deepen my knowledge of Judaism, to better connect to it," he says about Nativ, where he met his girlfriend. "And I also wanted to convert eventually. I knew it was important for my future, mainly for setting up a family here."

During his six years in the army, Andrei has paid quite a few visits to the military cemetery on Mount Herzl, where soldiers who are neither Jewish, Muslim, Druze or Christian, like himself, are buried in a special non-Jewish plot, set aside from the other graves. "It bothered me every time. Why would a soldier like me not be buried alongside everyone else," he asks, recalling his feelings.