Yoni Goldstein: Soaring to the Beat of a Different Drum

Every kid wonders what it would be like to fly. Yonatan (Yoni) Goldstein didn’t leave it to his imagination; he took his dream to the sky. “I believe it’s my calling,” he says. “It’s something I just knew I had to do,” says the twenty-five-year-old US Air Force pilot.

With every military mission, Lieutenant Goldstein leaves his wife and two children in Seattle, Washington with a heavy but determined heart. “I feel that it’s my duty to protect this great nation,” he says. “I’m defending the Constitution and serving the people I love.” He boards a C-17, a huge military transport aircraft used for rapid airlifting troops and cargo to military bases throughout the world; it can also perform tactical airlift, medical evacuation and airdrop missions. Along with his mission commander, another pilot and two loadmasters, Lieutenant Goldstein flies from Seattle to American soldiers on the ground, wherever they may be. Depending on the need, the cargo can include ammunition, tanks, Humvees, attack vehicles, medical supplies and food. The crew can fly for up to twenty-four hours in one clip. After a week of long and tiresome workdays, they head home to rest up—until the next flight.

Lieutenant Goldstein is probably the first graduate of Yavneh Academy in Dallas, Texas, to enroll in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). He became a commissioned officer in May of 2008, and by November entered into active service at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma to start pilot training. Five months later, he traveled to Pueblo, Colorado, for four weeks of more intensive training, this time with exposure to actual flying. “Within three weeks of our arrival, we were expected to fly solo,” he says. “It was pretty unnerving.”

In the Service of God
Lieutenant Goldstein’s abiding love for Yiddishkeit only intensified as he realized his boyhood dream; he wears both his kippah and his US military uniform proudly. “There is a way to stay a religious Jew and also fulfill the requirements for the mission,” he says. “It’s not easy, but it’s doable.” He turns to rabbanim for guidance when needed. He explains, for example, that sometimes he is required to drop off cargo on Shabbat. “Because it’s going to keep our soldiers alive and fighting, the rabbis have told me that our mission is tantamount to pikuach nefesh,” says Lieutenant Goldstein. “This is not something I enjoy, but I know with all of my heart and soul that it’s important I do it.”

What Lieutenant Goldstein really enjoys, aside from flying and assisting US soldiers across the globe, is bringing them back home safely to their families. “That’s the most rewarding part,” he says. He also values the opportunities to make a kiddush Hashem.

“While at a downrange location [in the middle of a war zone], an airman came onto the airplane saying he had something to ask me,” says Lieutenant Goldstein. “He said he forgot what day Rosh Hashanah was. He asked me, ‘Is it Tuesday or Wednesday?’ I inquired if he had contacted a chaplain for his holiday food needs, like apples, honey, grape juice, challah. He said he didn’t, so I gave him the e-mail address of a chaplain and told him to e-mail him and get what he needed.”

It’s Time for Neitz
On each mission, Lieutenant Goldstein brings his siddur, a copy of Me’am Loez on the Parashah, and a mussar sefer. “I realized I needed to do something extra to make sure I stay true to my beliefs,” he says. “I find it very challenging working in an environment where it would be easier to say ‘I don’t need to keep strictly kosher here; it’s [too] difficult.’ You have to work around it, plan ahead, in order not to be tempted to eat something non-kosher or break Shabbat when it does not directly concern saving people’s lives.”

Lieutenant Goldstein makes sure to bring enough kosher food with him on each mission, and if the plane lands on Shabbat, he has other crew members use his credit card, help him with his bags, and turn the refrigerator light off in his room. “I make it a point to daven on time whenever possible,” Lieutenant Goldstein says. “Since we fly during hours of darkness, as soon as I see the sun come up I think, great, it’s time for neitz. I’ll tell the other pilot that I’m checking out for twenty minutes. I put on my tefillin and tallit and pray Shacharit facing the sun in the cockpit. From that altitude, you can clearly see the orb coming up from the horizon.”

Lieutenant Goldstein credits the long school days and demanding studies in yeshivah for providing him with the stamina for the job. “Almost every mission . . . has its own set of difficulties and problems you have to solve,” he says. “It’s complicated and you could have dozens of diverse problems simultaneously. Yeshivah taught me how to think on my feet, how to analyze a situation with a critical eye. We would read a pasuk in Chumash and look at the grammar, the structure, syntax, and vowels. Then we were asked ‘What questions do you have?’ We would write our questions down and then go into Rashi, Seforno, the Ohr HaChaim, looking into the different commentaries; we found our answers right there. My years in day school gave me the foundation, the framework, to think quickly and logically in the flying environment.”

Lieutenant Goldstein’s high school friends typically went into law, medicine and business. He admits that some were surprised by his choice of career. “I’ve never been someone who tries to seek the approval of the crowd,” he says. “I’ve always marched to the beat of a different drummer.” Although he loves his job, he’s not so quick to encourage frum youth to join the Air Force. “I would tell them, ‘If this is your dream, pursue it; if it isn’t, I can’t guarantee you’ll be successful,’” he says. “You have to have an extremely strong sense of patriotism, a strong work ethic, and you have to be very secure in your Judaism. If you’re not, it is very easy to let it fall by the wayside for expediency’s sake.”

Lieutenant Goldstein recently shared the wisdom of his experience with NCSYers in Seattle. “I told them that no matter what career they choose, it’s not only achievable, but it is commendable to stay true to and grow in Judaism,” he said. “It’s not just a matter of personal satisfaction. It’s a matter of integrity—to our history, and the Torah. I was Jewish before I became an officer and will be when I retire. I intend to try to be as religious as I can all the days of my life. That’s what it’s all about—to be a devoted servant of God.”

Spoken like a true serviceman.

Bayla Sheva Brenner is a senior writer in the OU Communications and Marketing  Department.


This article was featured in the Spring 2012 issue of Jewish Action.