BY: CHAPLAIN (COL) YAAKOV GOLDSTEIN, USAR RET.
Two days before Chanukah in December 1990, my unit mobilized for the Gulf War. My fellow soldiers and I convoyed to Fort Dix in New Jersey, where I spent Shabbat of Chanukah The day after, Sunday, I got permission to leave and went to see the Lubavitcher Rebbe in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. My mother came with me. She was very worried; Saddam Hussein was threatening to attack Israel with gas, and as a Holocaust survivor, this was extremely frightening for her to hear. Before she could say anything, the Rebbe assured her that Israel will be safe, and said “things will turn out well for the Jews.”
I told the Rebbe that I didn’t know where I was going but I had orders to prepare for a six-month deployment. This meant I would be gone for Chanukah, Purim, and Pesach. After that I did not know what would happen. The Rebbe said, “Wherever you’re going, it’s going to be over quick.”
Two weeks later, I received my deployment orders and my commander gave me permission to see the Rebbe again before I left. With a smile, he asked if I could get a blessing for him and all the other soldiers, to which I responded, “Absolutely!”
When I went to see the Rebbe the second time, I told him that I now had orders to deploy to Saudi Arabia for up to one year. I added that I had a megillah packed to take with me to read to
the Jewish soldiers on Purim. With regard to Pesach, I was certain that the US military would support my efforts to arrange a seder. I pledged to do whatever I could to engage Jewish service members with Judaism. I ended by asking the Rebbe for a blessing.
The Rebbe said to me in Yiddish, “A megillah will surely be there [in the desert], but you are not going to read from it.” Then he handed me a stack of dollars for myself and for other Jewish soldiers to give to charity, a practice he did whenever people came to seek his advice and blessings.
Intially, I did not understand what the Rebbe was saying. I merely heard the words, and of course, as a good chassid I said “Amen” to his blessing. I did not understand how there would be a megillah in Saudi Arabia, or who else might end up reading it, if not me. It was only later that everything became clear.
That conversation took place on a Sunday. We were supposed to deploy between Monday and Wednesday. The ground war had not yet started, but the air war had already begun the previous Thursday. Scuds were beginning to fall. On Monday, around three or four in the morning, I was woken up and told to go to an Emergency Operations Center (EOC). The voice at the other end of the phone was a voice I knew well—in fact, it was a friend of mine. He told me that my orders had changed, and I was going to Israel. I told him I didn’t appreciate such a joke at 3:00 in the morning… But he said, “No, it’s real.” Apparently, an American commander on the ground in Israel had requested a Jewish chaplain, and I was selected.
At that point, I finally realized what the Rebbe had meant: Jewish soldiers were going to the desert, but I wouldn’t be the one reading megillah for them. They would have other Jewish chaplains to read it for them.
With that shocking thought, I woke up pretty quickly. Before long, I was on my way to Israel where I remained for the entirety of my year-long deployment. As it turned out, the stack of dollars from the Rebbe went to good use, as I came across many Jews, far more than I ever expected.
Originally published in the Purim 2023 issue of The Jewish American Warrior.