A Unique Spirit


It was the third day of the Crown Heights riots in 1991, and a sense was growing among the besieged Lubavitcher community that members may have to take matters into their own hands. A meeting was planned that night between some of the community’s leaders and then-Mayor David Dinkins. Frustrated that violence against Jews seemed unabating while police were taking minimal steps to protect the chasidim, Rabbi Jacob Goldstein took a decidedly unorthodox tack: He urged chasidic businessmen who were licensed to carry firearms to attend, and to bring their weapons.

“They wore their jackets open,” Rabbi Goldstein recalls. “Whether Dinkins saw it or not is questionable … But his security people saw it.”

The message, the rabbi says, was clear: “Clean it up. Or else.” The chasidim in the room were ready to take action to defend themselves had the riots not ended the following day.

Rabbi Goldstein’s approach to that situation is one of many ways he has turned the classic interpretation of a chasidic rabbi on its sidelocks.

As a chaplain in the Army National Guard, Rabbi Goldstein has bivouaced in the mud with troops in foreign and domestic deployments ranging from Operation Desert Storm in 1991 to ice-ravaged upstate New York last winter.

As a community activist, he has spoken out strongly to the press on the injustice of the riots and their aftermath.

As a private person, he has spent his vacation chasing steers across the Colorado mountains on a kosher cattle drive.

He has also served three mayors and two governors in various government jobs, ranging from an arson task force under Mayor John Lindsay to his current position as an assistant commissioner of the Division of Housing and Community Renewal. Appointed to the latter post by Gov. Mario Cuomo, he has maintained close ties with Cuomo’s successor, George Pataki. The governor recently named him state staff chaplain of the New York National Guard, the first rabbi in state history to hold such a position.

Rabbi Goldstein has also been a staunch backer of former Republican Sen. Alfonse D’Amato, whose campaign he joined last year in a largely unsuccessful effort to bolster the Jewish vote.

But he is best known for his position as chair of Community Board 9 in Crown Heights. The perception of constant tension between the black and Jewish communities there notwithstanding, he points to his election to the helm of the board for 18 of the past 19 years — he was ousted temporarily in 1995 — as proof that blacks and Jews have no difficulty working together.

“The board is 82 percent African American. We’ve done a hell of a lot — rebuild parks, rebuild roads, work together,” he says. “When outsiders and do-gooders try to tell us how to live, we run into trouble. When we’re on our own, we do very well.”

Further proof, he says, is his own close friendship with the late Dr. Betty Shabazz, the widow of Malcolm X and president of Medgar Evers College in Crown Heights. The association began when Shabazz called Rabbi Goldstein for his help in expanding the college. His lobbying in Albany “showed that this went beyond just a black college” but had full community support, he says. In a eulogy at Shabazz’s funeral in 1997, Rabbi Goldstein spoke about their relationship.

The rabbi, whose long white beard makes him appear older than his 51 years, was born in a French displaced persons camp in 1947, the son of concentration camp survivors. His father, trained as a shochet, or ritual slaughterer, moved the family to Covington, Ky., but when he arrived, considered leaving America.

“When he would walk down the street, black people would step off the sidewalk,” Rabbi Goldstein recalls. “At first he thought he was being stigmatized because people knew he was a survivor.”

Joseph Goldstein was told later that blacks in the South typically avoided getting in the way of white people. “He told my mother, let’s get out of this country. This is what we came to get away from.”

Reassured that change was inevitable, the elder Goldstein did leave Kentucky, but it was for Cincinnati. Later they would move to Crown Heights, where the family has remained, and where Jacob completed yeshiva and earned his rabbinical ordination.

In 1969 he married Seema Adelman; they now have five children, ages 12 to 29, and four grandchilden.

His first involvement with the National Guard came in the late 1960s, when the ranks swelled with Jews during the Vietnam era. The late Lubavitcher rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, urged his followers to provide tefillin for the guardsmen. Rabbi Goldstein became such a fixture at state armories and camps that a Catholic chaplain once asked him to consider enlistment.

Encouraged by the rebbe and assured he could keep his beard, Rabbi Goldstein underwent basic training in 1970.

As a chaplain, he oversees the spiritual needs of all guardsmen, mostly non-Jews. He will organize Christian services but will not perform them. If a Catholic or Protestant chaplain is unavailable, he will perform a “unified service,” which involves the reading of Psalms.

Rabbi Goldstein, whose rank is lieuteant colonel, is also responsible as well for “hatch, match and dispatch,” military jargon for birth, marriage or funeral. Convincing a Jewish guardsman to have a brit for his son once led the guardsman and a friend to become observant.

His most unusual request came during Operation Urgent Fury in Grenada in 1983, when U.S. troops invaded the Caribbean island. It was near Christmas. Seeing the bearded clergyman, an excited officer exclaimed, “You’re going to be my Santa.” The red suit was on its way. The rabbi politely declined.

In 1990 he was mobilized for Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf and served with an American Patriot missile battery unit in Israel. He remained there more than five months, his longest deployment.

The long stretches in the field have been difficult for his large family.“It’s not easy being the wife of a chaplain, or anybody in the National Guard,” says Seema Goldstein, a commissioner with the state Parks Commission. “But it’s become part of the lifestyle. I stand behind my husband. We rely on extended family as a support group.”

Seema says her husband’s exploits “show that you can be chasidic and still have an interest in the outside world, which makes it even more meaningful.”

But the rabbi brings a decidedly traditional mind-set to his duties at a time when the military has moved from convention to modernity. He is skeptical about the wisdom of allowing women in combat roles.

“I’ve got certain reservations,” he says. “By and large the females I have seen acted very professionally … But in a real way a woman can’t do a man’s job [and] the instinct of a man would be to protect a woman … That’s the nature of the beast.”

But he has made no complaints, and is determined to minister to anyone who needs his services. Under the uniform still beats the heart of a chasidic rabbi, he says, guided by centuries-old ethos.

“There is an old Yiddish saying that a tzaddik in a peltz [fur coat] is not a tzaddik,” he says, using the term for a righteous man. “He stays warm but does not exude his warmth elsewhere. If you’ve got something, share it with somebody else.”