The Jewish Week
Rabbi Yaakov Goldstein retired last month after 38 years as a U.S. Army chaplain having reached the mandatory retirement age of 68. He held the rank of and was the longest serving Jewish chaplain in the U.S. military.
Rabbi Goldstein, who was born in a displaced persons camp in Paris after World War II, immigrated with his family to the United States shortly after his birth. He graduated from the Lubavitch Rabbinical Seminary, where he was ordained. He currently serves as an assistant commissioner of housing for New York State, as a chaplain with the U.S. Secret Service, and as chairman of Community Board 9 in the Crown Heights area of Brooklyn. The Jewish Week spoke with him last week by telephone. This is an edited transcript.
Q: What changes in the military have you seen in your 38 years as an Army chaplain?
A: When I came in, women were first beginning to show up in the ranks but only in certain units, like the signal corps and medical corps. But now they are talking about putting women in Ranger units. That is a huge sea change.
Are more rabbis choosing to become military chaplains today than 38 years ago?
No. When I came in, we had over 1 million soldiers on active duty in the Army. Today, the Army has in the 400,000 range. So proportionately there were more chaplains years ago. Today, there are not that many Jewish chaplains — we have to scrounge to find them.
How many Jewish chaplains are there today in the military?
There are 10 in the Army — eight Orthodox and two Reform. By the way, when I first started, it was the other way around.
There are 12 in the Navy — four Orthodox, four Conservative and four Reform. The Air Force has six — four Orthodox, one Reform and one Conservative. … Collectively there may be 10,000 Jews in the military around the world.
You sport a long white beard for which you had to receive special permission because the military bans facial hair.
I engaged many members of Congress to help me, and I had hanging on my wall a copy of the letter from the chief of staff of the Army signing off on it just so that everyone would know I’m kosher.
How many High Holy Days have you been able to spend with your family rather than deployed with troops overseas?
Over the last 25 years I was hardly ever home — and since 9/11 none. I’ve spent a lot of time away from the house. On one airline alone I accumulated 1.5 million miles. … I have a great wife who really runs the house and made sure the kids did their homework. The most important thing for a Jewish chaplain is the support he receives from his wife.
What was the hardest part of the job?
The most difficult part was death notifications. In the last 15 years I must have done half a dozen of them. Along with a non-commissioned officer you go to the house that the soldier lists in case of death. Each one is different; it takes a piece out of you.
You were the senior chaplain for all military branches at Ground Zero in the days and weeks after 9/11. Do you have a special memory from that time?
It was the third day and a Protestant chaplain came up to me and said he was given this by a rescue worker who had pulled it from the pile of rubble. It was a grey yarmulke that must have been on somebody’s head or desk. The inscription inside said it was from a wedding reception two nights before the attack. To me it was a sign from God that there was good coming out of this mess.