Republicans call Mazi Pilip the candidate for the moment; Democrats say she isn't ready for Washington. NewsdayTV's Macy Egeland and Newsday politics reporter Paul LaRocco report. Credit: Newsday/Kendall Rodriguez; File Footage

New to the United States, Mazi Melesa Pilip traveled the country promoting the plight of Ethiopian Jews.

At temples and colleges throughout the mid-2000s, she spoke of her dramatic airlift to Israel from the East African nation. Pilip was 12 during “Operation Solomon” in 1991, and in public appearances she’d recount the religious persecution in her impoverished rural village, her family’s liberation during a civil war and their jarring assimilation into modern Israeli society.

One panel included an Israeli military pilot who flew in the mission and the American emissary, former Sen. Rudy Boschwitz of Minnesota, who helped negotiate it.

To a 20-something Pilip, it was another speaking engagement.

Today, she calls it epochal. Pilip couldn't quite believe it when Boschwitz called her in 2022, after reading that the Great Neck mother of seven had become a Nassau County legislator.

Now, Pilip herself hopes to go to Congress. She is the Republican candidate against Democrat Tom Suozzi in the Feb. 13 special election in New York's 3rd Congressional District.

“Time is amazing and how everything can connect,” Pilip, 44, told Newsday. “Who would think? The senator that was part of this amazing deal and that little girl that didn’t have running water inside the house, or a toilet, that she will come to Israel and then the United States and become a legislator and now be a candidate for Congress?”

The race is attracting intense national attention and heavy spending by outside political groups because it could help determine the balance of power in the divided U.S. House.

And an unlikely confluence of events — Suozzi's decision not to seek reelection in the 3rd District for a long-shot, and unsuccessful, gubernatorial bid; the expulsion of Suozzi's successor, former GOP Rep. George Santos; and the Israel-Hamas war — quickened Pilip's rise to the nomination.

Republicans call her a candidate for the moment. She’s an Orthodox Jew, Israeli military veteran and impassioned defender of Israel in a district with a large Jewish population. She’s an immigrant at a time the GOP has made the surge in migrants crossing the U.S. southern border its top campaign issue.

In questioning Pilip's readiness for the House, Democrats cite her meager record during her first term as a county legislator, in which she was the lead sponsor of only a few bills; her campaign’s rejection of most invitations for debates with Suozzi; and her tendency to stick to broad Republican slogans and talking points.

“I’m not a talker. I am a person of action,” Pilip told Newsday last month at Nassau GOP headquarters in Westbury. “I don’t promise if I cannot deliver. And if I promise, I will do everything to deliver.”

Suozzi, 61, told Newsday: “I think she’s got a great resume, as far as her personal story. She doesn’t really have a position that she’s taking on a lot of national issues. And she’s not telling us.”

Pilip’s father was a farmer in Ethiopia. They had “a very simple home,” she recalled, without indoor plumbing or a stove. Meals were cooked outdoors over fire.

The lack of amenities didn’t make Pilip’s family unusual, but its Jewish faith did.

Practicing Judaism was something “you don’t talk about at all,” Pilip said. Ethiopian Jews were labeled “Falasha,” which in the Amharic language translates to wanderer or outsider.

Israel opened an embassy in the capital of Addis Ababa in the late 1980s, and many Ethiopian Jews went there awaiting rescue. A civil war between the country's ruling regime and rebel forces brought mass starvation and the persecution of Jews, who accounted for a small fraction of the population.

In 1991, Israel and the United States negotiated a cease-fire and conducted a covert mission to airlift roughly 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Evacuees were packed into seat-less jumbo jets, Pilip recalled. Children had numbered stickers affixed to their forehead for identification.

“Even though that was very hard, we were singing,” Pilip recalled of the flight.

But modern Israeli society was a culture shock. Like many refugees, Pilip was sent to government-run boarding school. Many kids didn’t know how to read or write at all, let alone in Hebrew.

“I cried a lot” during that period, Pilip said.

Her father’s health made him unable to resume farming in Israel, Pilip said. The government supported the family as Pilip finished school, took college prep courses, and enrolled as required in the Israel Defense Force.

Between late 1997 and mid-1999, she served as a gunsmith in the paratroopers brigade, securing weapons in Israel as male colleagues fought in Lebanon. Pilip was not a parachutist, and women were barred from combat roles until 2001.

The IDF, Pilip said, wanted her for officer school. But Pilip preferred college, enrolling in an occupational therapy program at Haifa University. The program shared a building with Technion-Israel Institute of Technology's medical school. There she met Adalabert Pilip, a Ukraine-born American medical student.

After they finished school, Adalbert Pilip returned to the United States for a residency at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. He and Mazi Pilip married in New York in 2005.

Pilip, who had advocated for Ethiopian Jewish students at Haifa, conducted outreach for the nonprofit North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry in New York. She flew to states across the nation, sponsored by the nonprofit and a Jewish speakers bureau, to participate in panels and Jewish film festivals.

On one panel, she sat with Boschwitz, a Republican who as President George H.W. Bush’s Ethiopian emissary had worked with Israel to execute Operation Solomon.

Pilip's rise to local-elected office and, now, the House run is “a wonderful testimony of her skills and also the Democratic system here in the United States,” Boschwitz, 93, told Newsday from his winter home in Florida.

Pilip became a U.S. citizen in 2009, after she got her master's degree in Israel. The family settled in Great Neck in 2012, and Pilip managed operations at her husband’s medical practice, New York Comprehensive Medical Care in Smithtown.

Democrats have pointed to a lawsuit alleging the practice owes more than $500,000 in unpaid rent on a former facility. Pilip's campaign calls the case a private lease dispute between Pilip's husband and a landlord, and says Pilip herself has no involvement in the dispute. 

In the special election, Democrats also have aired ads suggesting Pilip would fall in line with the most conservative House Republicans in slashing entitlements and imposing a national ban on abortion, which Pilip has denied. 

“I don't think she's going to get pulled to the right,” Pedram Bral, a fellow Orthodox Jew and Great Neck Village mayor, told Newsday.

A longtime registered Democrat, Pilip confirmed last week she would change her registration to Republican after the election.

“I don’t think she’s someone who can easily be persuaded to do the things that other people ask,” said Bral, who gave Pilip her start in local government by naming her to the village architectural review board.

Pilip recalled how her son in 2020 asked for a Star of David necklace as he prepared for his bar mitzvah. In a period of increasing antisemitism, Pilip said she found herself worrying for his safety.

“If I’m worried, how am I supposed to raise my kids here?” she recalled thinking. “I said, ‘I have to be more involved.’ ”

In 2021, Bral suggested Pilip to Nassau Republican chairman Joseph Cairo, who was seeking more diverse candidates to make inroads in Democratic strongholds, including the county legislature's 10th District in Great Neck.

“I just felt she was the one,” Cairo recalled in an interview.

Pilip thought her political career was over before it started.

Days after agreeing to run for legislature, the then-mother of five found out she was pregnant, due shortly before Election Day.

“I said, ‘Maz, listen. You’ll have the baby, take maybe a day, two days off, you’ll go back on the campaign trail,' ” Cairo recalled. “She smiled and laughed.”

Actually, she was having twins — a fact she withheld from Cairo. She returned to the campaign trail 10 days after the births of two girls and defeated four-term Democratic incumbent Ellen Birnbaum.

“I’m a fighter,” Pilip said. “I don’t want nobody to do better than me.”

During her first legislative term, Pilip co-sponsored bills to establish a bipartisan task force to combat antisemitism and to curb the theft of catalytic converters, but rarely spoke at meetings, transcripts show.

Kevan Abrahams, the legislature’s former Democratic minority leader, told Newsday Pilip “seems like a very great person,” but he never saw signs of leadership in her.

“Sometimes you have to be that squeaky wheel to get that attention,” said Abrahams, who left office last year and is backing Suozzi. “I just don't know if she's well equipped to be able to deal and navigate through the nuances of Washington. I just haven't seen her demonstrate the ability to be a vocal leader or somebody that can collaborate with her caucus and get things done.”

Since launching their candidacies in December, Pilip and Suozzi have kept frenetic schedules, bouncing between party rallies and religious and civic events across the 3rd District. On Friday, Pilip and Nassau Republicans hosted House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) at a private fundraiser.

But Pilip and Suozzi have had just one joint appearance, at a nonpolitical event in support of Israeli hostages, with a single debate scheduled to air Thursday night on News 12 Long Island.

Suozzi frequently knocks Pilip for avoiding public events that could put her in uncomfortable positions. But that happened to her anyway on Jan. 17, at a friendly Republican rally for her in Whitestone.

During her speech, protesters with the Long Island Democratic Socialists of America shouted their support for Palestinians in Israel's war with Hamas militants.

At first, Pilip ignored them, as members of the GOP crowd chanted, “U.S.A., U. S. A!”

Hamas and other militants who attacked Israel on Oct. 7 killed some 1,200 people, and took about 250 hostages. More than 26,000 Palestinians have been killed during Israel's subsequent ground and air offensive, according to health officials in Hamas-run Gaza.

Pilip has countered questions about Israel's military response by pointing to Hamas' kidnapping of Israeli civilians during its attack. And after a second interruption at the Whitestone rally, she spoke up. 

“I just want to make sure I’m very clear. I’m not against Muslim or Palestinian. I’m not. I respect human being,” she said. “But you know what? I’m against terrorist organizations! I’m also against terrorist supporters trying to disrupt our lives!”

The crowd roared with approval and Pilip, her voice rising, said she was running for Congress “because I love my children. I’m doing that for your children.

“I’m doing that to save our great country!”

With Scott Eidler

New to the United States, Mazi Melesa Pilip traveled the country promoting the plight of Ethiopian Jews.

At temples and colleges throughout the mid-2000s, she spoke of her dramatic airlift to Israel from the East African nation. Pilip was 12 during “Operation Solomon” in 1991, and in public appearances she’d recount the religious persecution in her impoverished rural village, her family’s liberation during a civil war and their jarring assimilation into modern Israeli society.

One panel included an Israeli military pilot who flew in the mission and the American emissary, former Sen. Rudy Boschwitz of Minnesota, who helped negotiate it.

To a 20-something Pilip, it was another speaking engagement.

Today, she calls it epochal. Pilip couldn't quite believe it when Boschwitz called her in 2022, after reading that the Great Neck mother of seven had become a Nassau County legislator.

Now, Pilip herself hopes to go to Congress. She is the Republican candidate against Democrat Tom Suozzi in the Feb. 13 special election in New York's 3rd Congressional District.

“Time is amazing and how everything can connect,” Pilip, 44, told Newsday. “Who would think? The senator that was part of this amazing deal and that little girl that didn’t have running water inside the house, or a toilet, that she will come to Israel and then the United States and become a legislator and now be a candidate for Congress?”

I’m not a talker. I am a person of action. I don’t promise if I cannot deliver. And if I promise, I will do everything to deliver.

Mazi Melesa Pilip

The race is attracting intense national attention and heavy spending by outside political groups because it could help determine the balance of power in the divided U.S. House.

And an unlikely confluence of events — Suozzi's decision not to seek reelection in the 3rd District for a long-shot, and unsuccessful, gubernatorial bid; the expulsion of Suozzi's successor, former GOP Rep. George Santos; and the Israel-Hamas war — quickened Pilip's rise to the nomination.

Republicans call her a candidate for the moment. She’s an Orthodox Jew, Israeli military veteran and impassioned defender of Israel in a district with a large Jewish population. She’s an immigrant at a time the GOP has made the surge in migrants crossing the U.S. southern border its top campaign issue.

In questioning Pilip's readiness for the House, Democrats cite her meager record during her first term as a county legislator, in which she was the lead sponsor of only a few bills; her campaign’s rejection of most invitations for debates with Suozzi; and her tendency to stick to broad Republican slogans and talking points.

“I’m not a talker. I am a person of action,” Pilip told Newsday last month at Nassau GOP headquarters in Westbury. “I don’t promise if I cannot deliver. And if I promise, I will do everything to deliver.”

Suozzi, 61, told Newsday: “I think she’s got a great resume, as far as her personal story. She doesn’t really have a position that she’s taking on a lot of national issues. And she’s not telling us.”

From Ethiopia to Israel

Pilip’s father was a farmer in Ethiopia. They had “a very simple home,” she recalled, without indoor plumbing or a stove. Meals were cooked outdoors over fire.

The lack of amenities didn’t make Pilip’s family unusual, but its Jewish faith did.

Practicing Judaism was something “you don’t talk about at all,” Pilip said. Ethiopian Jews were labeled “Falasha,” which in the Amharic language translates to wanderer or outsider.

Israel opened an embassy in the capital of Addis Ababa in the late 1980s, and many Ethiopian Jews went there awaiting rescue. A civil war between the country's ruling regime and rebel forces brought mass starvation and the persecution of Jews, who accounted for a small fraction of the population.

In 1991, Israel and the United States negotiated a cease-fire and conducted a covert mission to airlift roughly 14,000 Ethiopian Jews to Israel. Evacuees were packed into seat-less jumbo jets, Pilip recalled. Children had numbered stickers affixed to their forehead for identification.

“Even though that was very hard, we were singing,” Pilip recalled of the flight.

But modern Israeli society was a culture shock. Like many refugees, Pilip was sent to government-run boarding school. Many kids didn’t know how to read or write at all, let alone in Hebrew.

“I cried a lot” during that period, Pilip said.

Her father’s health made him unable to resume farming in Israel, Pilip said. The government supported the family as Pilip finished school, took college prep courses, and enrolled as required in the Israel Defense Force.

Between late 1997 and mid-1999, she served as a gunsmith in the paratroopers brigade, securing weapons in Israel as male colleagues fought in Lebanon. Pilip was not a parachutist, and women were barred from combat roles until 2001.

Mazi Melesa Pilip

Party: Republican-backed registered Democrat

Age: 44

Hometown: Great Neck

Education: Bachelor's degree in occupational therapy, Haifa University in Israel; master's in diplomacy and security, Tel Aviv University in Israel

Career: Gunsmith in the Israel Defense Force, 1997-1999; outreach jobs for nonprofit advocacy groups between 2004 and 2012, including the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry in New York; member, Great Neck Village Architectural Review Board, 2015 to 2017; operations director at her husband's medical practice, New York Comprehensive Medical Care, 2017 to 2021; Nassau County legislator, 2022 to present.

Campaign finance*: Raised: $1.3 million. Spent: $714,000. Cash On hand: $629,000. *Through Jan. 24, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

Photo credit: Linda Rosier

'A testimony of her skills'

The IDF, Pilip said, wanted her for officer school. But Pilip preferred college, enrolling in an occupational therapy program at Haifa University. The program shared a building with Technion-Israel Institute of Technology's medical school. There she met Adalabert Pilip, a Ukraine-born American medical student.

After they finished school, Adalbert Pilip returned to the United States for a residency at Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx. He and Mazi Pilip married in New York in 2005.

Pilip, who had advocated for Ethiopian Jewish students at Haifa, conducted outreach for the nonprofit North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry in New York. She flew to states across the nation, sponsored by the nonprofit and a Jewish speakers bureau, to participate in panels and Jewish film festivals.

On one panel, she sat with Boschwitz, a Republican who as President George H.W. Bush’s Ethiopian emissary had worked with Israel to execute Operation Solomon.

Pilip's rise to local-elected office and, now, the House run is “a wonderful testimony of her skills and also the Democratic system here in the United States,” Boschwitz, 93, told Newsday from his winter home in Florida.

Pilip became a U.S. citizen in 2009, after she got her master's degree in Israel. The family settled in Great Neck in 2012, and Pilip managed operations at her husband’s medical practice, New York Comprehensive Medical Care in Smithtown.

Nassau County Legis. Mazi Melesa Pilip (R-Great Neck) is shown...

Nassau County Legis. Mazi Melesa Pilip (R-Great Neck) is shown at her home on April 19, 2022. Credit: Chris Ware

Democrats have pointed to a lawsuit alleging the practice owes more than $500,000 in unpaid rent on a former facility. Pilip's campaign calls the case a private lease dispute between Pilip's husband and a landlord, and says Pilip herself has no involvement in the dispute. 

In the special election, Democrats also have aired ads suggesting Pilip would fall in line with the most conservative House Republicans in slashing entitlements and imposing a national ban on abortion, which Pilip has denied. 

“I don't think she's going to get pulled to the right,” Pedram Bral, a fellow Orthodox Jew and Great Neck Village mayor, told Newsday.

A longtime registered Democrat, Pilip confirmed last week she would change her registration to Republican after the election.

“I don’t think she’s someone who can easily be persuaded to do the things that other people ask,” said Bral, who gave Pilip her start in local government by naming her to the village architectural review board.

Entering politics

Pilip recalled how her son in 2020 asked for a Star of David necklace as he prepared for his bar mitzvah. In a period of increasing antisemitism, Pilip said she found herself worrying for his safety.

“If I’m worried, how am I supposed to raise my kids here?” she recalled thinking. “I said, ‘I have to be more involved.’ ”

In 2021, Bral suggested Pilip to Nassau Republican chairman Joseph Cairo, who was seeking more diverse candidates to make inroads in Democratic strongholds, including the county legislature's 10th District in Great Neck.

“I just felt she was the one,” Cairo recalled in an interview.

Pilip thought her political career was over before it started.

Days after agreeing to run for legislature, the then-mother of five found out she was pregnant, due shortly before Election Day.

I don't think she's going to get pulled to the right. I don’t think she’s someone who can easily be persuaded to do the things that other people ask.

Pedram Bral

“I said, ‘Maz, listen. You’ll have the baby, take maybe a day, two days off, you’ll go back on the campaign trail,' ” Cairo recalled. “She smiled and laughed.”

Actually, she was having twins — a fact she withheld from Cairo. She returned to the campaign trail 10 days after the births of two girls and defeated four-term Democratic incumbent Ellen Birnbaum.

“I’m a fighter,” Pilip said. “I don’t want nobody to do better than me.”

During her first legislative term, Pilip co-sponsored bills to establish a bipartisan task force to combat antisemitism and to curb the theft of catalytic converters, but rarely spoke at meetings, transcripts show.

Kevan Abrahams, the legislature’s former Democratic minority leader, told Newsday Pilip “seems like a very great person,” but he never saw signs of leadership in her.

“Sometimes you have to be that squeaky wheel to get that attention,” said Abrahams, who left office last year and is backing Suozzi. “I just don't know if she's well equipped to be able to deal and navigate through the nuances of Washington. I just haven't seen her demonstrate the ability to be a vocal leader or somebody that can collaborate with her caucus and get things done.”

Campaigning

Since launching their candidacies in December, Pilip and Suozzi have kept frenetic schedules, bouncing between party rallies and religious and civic events across the 3rd District. On Friday, Pilip and Nassau Republicans hosted House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) at a private fundraiser.

But Pilip and Suozzi have had just one joint appearance, at a nonpolitical event in support of Israeli hostages, with a single debate scheduled to air Thursday night on News 12 Long Island.

Suozzi frequently knocks Pilip for avoiding public events that could put her in uncomfortable positions. But that happened to her anyway on Jan. 17, at a friendly Republican rally for her in Whitestone.

During her speech, protesters with the Long Island Democratic Socialists of America shouted their support for Palestinians in Israel's war with Hamas militants.

Mazi Melesa Pilip, the Republican candidate in the Feb. 13...

Mazi Melesa Pilip, the Republican candidate in the Feb. 13 special election for the 3rd Congressional District. Credit: Howard Schnapp

At first, Pilip ignored them, as members of the GOP crowd chanted, “U.S.A., U. S. A!”

Hamas and other militants who attacked Israel on Oct. 7 killed some 1,200 people, and took about 250 hostages. More than 26,000 Palestinians have been killed during Israel's subsequent ground and air offensive, according to health officials in Hamas-run Gaza.

Pilip has countered questions about Israel's military response by pointing to Hamas' kidnapping of Israeli civilians during its attack. And after a second interruption at the Whitestone rally, she spoke up. 

“I just want to make sure I’m very clear. I’m not against Muslim or Palestinian. I’m not. I respect human being,” she said. “But you know what? I’m against terrorist organizations! I’m also against terrorist supporters trying to disrupt our lives!”

The crowd roared with approval and Pilip, her voice rising, said she was running for Congress “because I love my children. I’m doing that for your children.

“I’m doing that to save our great country!”

With Scott Eidler

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