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Jewish Journal

Shabbat in Iraq: Under the gun

by Lauren Herstik

July 2, 2013 | 12:38 pm

Eric Goldie found a way to observe Jewish holidays as a soldier in Iraq in 2010.

Eric Goldie found a way to observe Jewish holidays as a soldier in Iraq in 2010.

Military life can be grueling — both physically and emotionally draining. For Eric Goldie, military life has made for a storied and rewarding career that has challenged him in unexpected ways. In 2010, Goldie was mobilized for deployment to Iraq, and added to his list of challenges as a soldier came the question of how to observe Shabbat in Baghdad. 

In 1920, nearly 200,000 Jews lived in Baghdad. By 2010, when Goldie arrived — there were eight, he said. Goldie represented one of a small minority of Jewish soldiers from the United States who were committed to observing Shabbat during their one half-day off per week. It was no easy feat, with tight security measures and the occasional missile attack, but at the end of a 75-hour workweek, Shabbat services offered a welcomed respite. 

Goldie is no stranger to a challenging lifestyle. After starting out in the Navy Reserve as an electronic warfare technician, he returned to college, then went on to pursue leadership opportunities at the officer candidate school through the California Military Academy. He was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the National Guard, and then went on to the armor officer’s basic course to become a tank platoon leader. Goldie commanded four tanks with cannons that could hit a target, at the speed of sound, firing from 4,500 meters away. He continued to serve as a tank platoon leader while attending law school. He later served in rocket artillery, infantry and cavalry units.

In 2004, Goldie was deployed as a company commander training Army soldiers for Iraq in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. After a 2006 stint serving at the U.S./Mexico border, Goldie went on in 2009 to Tel Aviv to lend moral support in the fight against Hamas. It was there that he was notified of his troop’s mobilization for deployment to Iraq. 

Shortly after New Year’s Eve 2010, Goldie boarded a plane for Iraq. He was stationed at Forward Operating Base Union III in Baghdad’s International Zone. It was a small base with a big job; Goldie worked as a contracting expert, supporting the work of about 13 United States generals and admirals.

On Shabbat, Goldie and a small group of soldiers, embassy workers and contractors — and even one Iraqi-Jewish woman — would gather in the U.S. Embassy to daven. That woman, Halida, would sneak into the embassy to participate, a considerable risk in a city where Jews were hiding their true identities. But her commitment to “B’nai Baghdad,” as the group was called, made Shabbat that much more special for everyone. 

Goldie endured a gauntlet of barriers himself just to get to the embassy for services. 

“I had to take an armored transport, wearing 60 pounds of body armor, with my weapon, to attend,” he said recently in an interview from his home Los Angeles, where he now lives. 

Services were usually held in a conference room inside the embassy, and people from all corners of the International Zone were in attendance: State Department officials, Foreign Service officers, Treasury Department officials, even the embassy doctor, Mark Cohen. Lay leaders led services with limited prayer books occasionally supplied through the military’s chaplain system. 

“They rarely supplied anything,” Goldie said. 

“I firmly believe in tikkun olam [repairing the world]. And serving in the Army, and sometimes going in harm’s way so other Americans don’t have to, is my way of giving back and doing tikkun olam.”

Services were actually made possible with help from the Aleph Institute, a Chabad-run organization that assists the spiritual needs of Jews serving in the Armed Services anywhere in the world. 

“They supplied us with a camouflage Torah. I had a camo-Siddur, a camo-kippah. Even a shmura matzah,” Goldie said. 

The chaplain had to persuade the Army to allow wine for religious purposes, and so, for a time, a bit of Manischewitz was provided at services. 

“When it ran out, that was it,” Goldie recalled.

In 2011, Goldie was asked to lead a seder for the non-Jews on his base. They assembled in the chow hall, reading from classic Maxwell House haggadahs. The seder went so well, Goldie received a general’s coin for exemplary service from Lt. Gen. Michael Ferriter. 

“He shook my hand and gave me the coin,” Goldie recalled with pride. It’s an enormous honor in the military to receive one of these very rare awards. 

“It was fun,” he added. Although not always: Shabbat in a war zone is unpredictable. 

“One time, on my way to Shabbat, the enemy fired a missile on the embassy,” Goldie recalled. The whole compound went into lockdown, a duck-and-cover alert blaring over the sound system. Goldie ducked into a bunker, waiting for the danger to pass. When the “all-clear” was issued, he decided to continue on to services, having already come so far.

Goldie’s commitment to observing Shabbat was matched only by his commitment to serving his country. 

“I firmly believe in tikkun olam [repairing the world]. And serving in the Army, and sometimes going in harm’s way so other Americans don’t have to, is my way of giving back and doing tikkun olam,” Goldie said.

Since 2011, Goldie has been back in the United States, demobilized through the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Benning, and he’s currently “building back my law practice,” he said.

He has remained involved in service, however: “Today, I train Army battalion staff officers, teaching them the many lessons learned in war, so that if they ever deploy overseas, they’ll hopefully succeed at their job and come back alive.”

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