'Religious' pilot brings Reform Movement to IAF

Lt. Amitai: Sense of discipline, Jewish appreciation of scholarship carried me through the 3-year course.

pilot 224.88 (photo credit: IAF)
pilot 224.88
(photo credit: IAF)
Only one member of the Israel Air Force's Wing Order 155 graduating class is "religious" - and 22-year-old Lt. Amitai does not fit the image of the typical Orthodox Israeli. "I'm a conservative, religious Reform Jew," he said. "I'm observant in my own way, trying to understand Halacha, make it more modern and relevant for me." Surrounded by nonreligious soldiers, most of whom were not familiar with the Reform Movement, Amitai found that "they liked it when a little Judaism came in." Following his own strand of Judaism, which seeks a "spiritual experience," he tried not to just "let the holidays fly by," but instead make them special and give them meaning. Celebrating and understanding traditions, he said, were more important than prayer. Amitai is the son of an American mother and a Polish-born father who "met in Israel, married in New York and made aliya practically the next day." His father served in the IDF in an antiaircraft unit. Amitai grew up in a Reform home in Jerusalem. Before enlisting, he studied for a year in the Reform Movement's Machinah Leadership Program in Jaffa. The program incorporates volunteering with religious and nonreligious study, together with some military preparatory work. It includes the study of Jewish texts to learn how one might deal with moral dilemmas that may arise. "The idea is to learn a lot and mature a lot," Amitai said. Though the IDF does not directly offer the courses, he said, it grants permission for those who are accepted into such courses, because statistically, "many officers and combat units come out of them." Amitai has not found it difficult to blend his form of religiosity with his military service. "It's a Jewish army, and I joined the army because of my Jewish values," he said. "My religion enriches, not restricts, my life." Amitai, who is not a Shabbat observer by Orthodox standards, is not fazed by the prospect of flying or participating in missions on Shabbat. A militaristic sense of discipline even plays a role in his Judaism. "I decided seven years ago, as a philosophical decision, to do something hard that I don't understand," he said about keeping kosher. "It's always a dilemma of how much freedom I allow myself." Amitai said his sense of discipline and Jewish appreciation of scholarship carried him through the grueling three-year course involving ground- and air-combat training to become a navigator in an elite IAF unit, while simultaneously obtaining a degree in political science from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. "My moral values, who I am, these are things that are not necessarily connected to being Jewish," he said. "But like it or not, I am Jewish, and I use the richness of Judaism to deepen and enrich those morals." "Most people don't know Reform, and it's been interesting to meet people who are very religious or not in the army and challenge their values and mine," Amitai said. "Hopefully, they know it better after they know me."