Rabbi Jacob Goldstein will lead Yom Kippur services this year dressed not in the black fedora of his Lubavitch Hasidic sect, but in full battle gear at a Combat Operating Base in eastern Afghanistan. He makes up part of the crew of four military rabbis who will be helping Jews serving in Afghanistan to observe the High Holy Days, which began with Rosh Hashanah on the evening of September 28.
Nearly 100,000 American troops are currently stationed in Afghanistan. The number of Jewish service members is unknown, though at least 37 Jews have died there and in Iraq since 2001.
Interviewed on September 27, Goldstein said he expect about 30 participants at the Rosh Hashanah services he will hold at a base near Pakistan. Meanwhile, a Modern Orthodox rabbi and Army chaplain named Avi Weiss will hold High Holy Day services in northern Afghanistan.
Services in a combat zone aren’t quite the same as those back in the United States.
The rabbis come from different denominations, and their military services bear their own imprint. Goldstein’s services will feature a mechitzah, a divider separating men from women, and will follow a prayer book used by the Lubavitch community. Only men will be called to the Torah. Goldstein said that these practices had caused “no issues” in the past.
Goldstein will be doing some traveling. After Rosh Hashanah, the Lubavitch rabbi was planning to go with his bodyguard and assistant, an African-American soldier from Louisiana, to Combat Operating Bases and Forward Operating Bases in the midst of Afghanistan’s combat zones.
“I will be conducting the services in full body armor, full battle gear, which means helmet and full body protection,” Goldstein said. “That’s the way you live in a COB or an FOB. That’s not Crown Heights, right?”
Even in the relative safety of the larger bases, Goldstein said, he wears his army uniform rather than the typical Lubavitch hat and coat. A friend of his wife knit him a camouflage-patterned gartel, the belt Hasidic Jews wear while praying, which he brought along.
Goldstein, a colonel, has been an Army chaplain since 1976. His first deployment was to Granada in 1983. Just like the Lubavitchers who fill the streets of New York, Goldstein offers to help the men stationed at the Forward Operating Bases he visits to put on tefillin, and offers Sabbath candles to the women.
Meanwhile, in Kabul on Yom Kippur, soldiers will break the fast with fare that would appeal to the heart and stomach of any Ashkenazi.