Colonel Jacob Goldstein, a United States Army Reserve chaplain, was given a ceremonious military sendoff as he retired from a long, celebrated and unparalleled career on Wednesday.
Goldstein was joined by family members, military personnel and fellow Chabad rabbis at his retirement of 38 years of service at the Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall located around Arlington, Virginia.
“I don’t know,” the 68-year-old replied when asked by COLlive.com how he feels following the ceremony. “A good part of my life was guided by the military and now I am not going to get urgent calls and taking unexpected trips.”
Serving since 1977, his international combat missions include Bosnia, South Korea, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. On each of these trips he would service the spiritual and morale needs of Jewish men and women in uniform. That included leading High Holiday services on bases and providing kosher meals.
“It was a great honor to be a Jew in the military and for me to wear the uniform of our country,” he added. “I hope that in the coming years, especially with Chabad people trying to join the military as well, there will be an opportunity to make a similar Kiddush Hashem.”
Rightfully seen as a trailblazer, Goldstein was one of only 7 Orthodox Jewish chaplains serving in the Army and, until recently, was the only member of the armed forces with a full-length Chassidic beard.
His facial hair caused quite a stir in an environment where clean-shaven faces and finely trimmed haircuts are standing orders, an army specialist once observed. “I’ve never seen a person in the military with a beard before,” a Private remarked upon meeting Goldstein.
Goldstein’s years of service and dedication have become a legend in Jewish circles and inspired Chabad rabbis to follow suit. In 2011, Rabbi Menachem Stern won a legal battle to keep his beard as an Army chaplain. In 2014, Rabbi Elie Estrin became the first bearded chaplain in the U.S. Air Force.
The idea to serve came while Goldstein was a student at the Central Lubavitch Yeshiva at Lubavitch World Headquarters in Brooklyn, NY. As part of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s campaign to encourage Jewish observance, Goldstein visited army bases and “began to build a rapport with the Jewish soldiers.”
After some time, a senior Christian army chaplain approached him. “You are doing such good work with the soldiers-we need you in the army. Who is your chief bishop? I would like to write him to ask him to send you to us,” the man said.
Goldstein said he would write in to the Rebbe. “The Rebbe agreed that it was a good idea, and I enrolled, beginning the first of many eventful years as an army chaplain,” he recalled in an article.
The U.S. Army website notes that Goldstein was also instrumental in stateside affairs. As chief chaplain of the New York Army National Guard, his was one of the first military units to response to the terror attack of September 11, 2001 on the World Trade Center.
He and his team were eyewitnesses to the tragic events at Ground Zero. He tended to the spiritual needs at the site of the fallen towers and shared his experiences during the four and a half months he spent at Ground Zero in a series of videos titled “The Rabbi of Ground Zero” on Chabad.org.
Speaking to COLlive.com, Goldstein described the hardships he endured. “Burying a soldier is difficult, but what was even more difficult was notifying the families about the death. You are going to someone who sent a perfectly healthy son or daughter to the army and telling them what happened. It is a tremendously difficult and emotional time.”
Goldstein said he got through those tough times by focusing on the mission. “I was focused on my mission as a chaplain. Our country has been at war for the last 14 years and it’s not over… I hope to continue my role as a mentor.”