Israel's Northern stars

Winners of the 2014 President’s Citation, Lt.-Col. Rafi Goldstein and the 134th Battalion stay focused on protecting the Lebanese border.

 Lt.-Col. Rafi Goldstein receiving the 2014 President’s Citation (photo credit: Courtesy)
Lt.-Col. Rafi Goldstein receiving the 2014 President’s Citation
(photo credit: Courtesy)
The contrast was exceptional. In the summer of 2014, Rafi Goldstein and his family flew to the United States from Israel to celebrate their son’s bar mitzva in Disney World. “Come and see the magic, la la la la la,” the 43-year-old breaks out in song in his living room, a smile lighting up his face as if he is still roaming Magic Kingdom. “There I am. In Disney. Hugging stuffed animals. Having a great time.”
Less than 24 hours after arriving back in Israel, Hamas begins shelling the Jewish state and the war in Gaza breaks out. Goldstein, a lieutenant-colonel in reserves and the commanding officer of the northern 134th Battalion, immediately grabbed his uniform and raced to protect Israel’s northern border.
“I go from hugging cartoon characters to running along the Lebanese border at midnight with Jubrein the tracker, following what turned out to be the footprints of a wild boar. That’s what you call ‘dissonance’ for a soldier in reserve duty.”
The series of events was crazy, the father of three says, but it was also very much coincidental, he’s quick to point out. The family returned to the Holy Land on the exact day they had planned. The day after their flight, one of Goldstein’s nieces celebrated her bat mitzva. Family, friends and other relatives donned their “Saturday best” to celebrate their loved one’s coming of age at the Tur Sinai Organic Farm Resort in the Ramot Forest in Jerusalem. The only one who broke the dress code was Goldstein. He was already decked out in his green fatigues and red boots, on the way to the North. “But at least I got to stop in at the party,” he says.
Like the other 50,000 reserve soldiers who were called up for Operation Protective Edge last summer, Goldstein was just doing his duty. But what made him and his battalion stand out was the exceptional preparedness and mobilization they showed during the war, dealing with security incidents along the northern border every night. These characteristics, among many others that they have been improving since the 2006 Lebanon War, earned them a campaign medal from the summer war and the prestigious Presidential Reserve Unit Citation for 2014, awarded to them this past June. “As soon as Operation Protective Edge started, in less than 24 hours, 100 percent of the soldiers were there, equipped, and ready to take over for the Golani 12 regular army infantry brigade so it could go down to the Strip and fight in the war,” Goldstein says.
Ever since the end of the Second Lebanon War, international and local media have almost been focused solely on the developments in and around the Gaza Strip, and rightfully so. The IDF has engaged in three major military operations in Gaza in the past nine years, including last year’s Protective Edge, and has taken in more than 11,000 rocket attacks since 2006.
But speak to those in the Israeli defense establishment, and they’ll give you a completely different assessment of where the country’s real threats lie. Just a few months ago, former national security adviser Maj.- Gen. (res.) Yaakov Amidror said Hezbollah’s arsenal of 150,000 missiles exceeded the firepower possessed by most of the European states combined. And just because Israel’s military is busy on one front, doesn’t mean its other enemies will give them a free pass. Just as it happened nine years ago, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah can peak out of his bunker at any moment letting the Israelis know that they shouldn’t be too focused on the Gazans. Two weeks into the 2006 Operation Summer Rains in the Gaza Strip, which began when Hamas captured then-Cpl. Gilad Schalit, Israel found itself switching gears to focus on Lebanese Shi’ite terrorists in the North in what became the Second Lebanon War.
Situated on the Ramim Cliffs, just a short drive down from Israel’s northernmost city, Metulla, the 134th Battalion is charged with protecting the North, its border and all its settlements. As a company commander during the July War, Goldstein remembers it well. His unit launched thousands of mortars on Lebanon’s Party of Allah terrorists, but overall, when recalling the events from nine years ago, the hardcore Zionist is at times at a loss for words to describe the terrifying scenes of the hundreds of katyushas he saw fall down upon them during the war.
“It was very traumatic,” Goldstein says. “We were inside Lebanon. We were on the border, which wasn’t really the border anymore. It was very intensive, very scary. It drained a lot of energy from us. It was a real mess, just a mess. Horrifying. But To finish the war with all the soldiers, without any one wounded, and with the same motivation that we had at the beginning of the war. It was something I was very proud of.”
Still, there was a lot of room to improve. And after the war, the 134th began a reformation, one significantly accelerated after Goldstein earned his two “falafels,” becoming lieutenant-colonel and the commanding officer of the 38-year-old battalion. Compromised of 47 officers and 427 soldiers and divided up into five companies, the unit developed an improved urban combat strategy, upgraded its camouflage warfare tactics and made a complete switch to the TAR-21 “Tavor” assault rifle, a more reliable and durable gun, which is critical for the difficult conditions in the Naftali Mountains.
Another area of success that earned the battalion its citation is how it treats its members. “We’re very attentive to our soldiers,” Goldstein says, who in total does 60 days of reserve duty each year with the complete support of his wife. “If one of them has a problem, if he’s a student and can’t get out of a test, we take it into consideration, we take care of them. We even held a fundraiser for one of our soldiers. We’re investing in them in the long run. And I try to build that type of relationship with my all officers, and I tell my officers to build that type of relationship with the soldiers. At the end of the day, I’m not doing it because it’s an order or anything like that. We’ve been through wars together. I have a personal obligation to my troops.”
Goldstein, a lawyer who works as director of public inquiries at the Israel Securities Authority, is always on duty. Not a day goes by where he doesn’t speak with one of his commanders or his officers, or deals with the unit’s logistics or upcoming training sessions for his battalion. When he’s up North, with such tiring work and absolute dedication, civilian life is miles away. “I miss my wife and my kids, but there’s so little time to focus on them,” he says. “All you want to do is find some time to sleep. For even half an hour, just find an empty bed and plop down – in uniform and with your shoes on.”
In June, around the same date that Operation Protective Edge began in 2014, Goldstein and his fellow officers went on a three-day training exercise along the Lebanon border. They aren’t the first ones to go into Lebanon, but they need to be ready for any type of situation that might just propel them to the front lines.
After a day of studying defensive lines, enemy mindsets and regional intelligence, the troops get ready for action. In the middle of the night, the battalion commander wakes up his men to give them a refresher on how to properly execute nighttime movements. In camouflage gear, they navigate through forests, study the terrain and start to get their confidence back as soldiers. Before dawn, they’ve moved into a mock village, checking every room in every house, securing street after street from any potential terrorists.
By the next morning they’re in the middle of a 12-hour war simulation. “At 2 a.m. we wake them up, by 3 we’re already on the way. I give them the command to walk a couple of kilometers, to form an ambush on a village. We do more drills on nighttime movement, all the while learning how to cover ourselves when it starts to get light out. We meet terrorists on the way. And then we tell them to change direction and attack a city. One company acts as a cover, two companies enter the city to attack. We’ve controlled the area, we’ve completed our missions and are just waiting to get further orders from the regional commander.” And then, it’s back to the office.
Despite the impressive military résumé that Goldstein has, the New Jersey-born resident of Modi’in, who immigrated to Israel when he was four years old, wasn’t even thinking about serving in the army. He saw his distant family members in the US going straight to university and he wanted to do the same. But his love of the land and the people kept him grounded for an opportunity that the Jewish Nation had been awaiting for more than 2,000 years.
He began as an enlisted soldier in the Nahal Brigade, an infantry unit responsible, like all others, for protecting the state from its enemies, but also helping out residents in their everyday lives. After finishing his basic training, Goldstein, who at the time lived in the central city of Rehovot, served for a year in the development town of Yeroham, a Negev desert city founded in 1951 to provide permanent housing to the large influx of refugees from Arab countries, Holocaust survivors and other new immigrants. He helped out residents in a “big brother” program, worked with the Bnei Akiva national-religious youth movement and involved himself in other various aspects to help out the underprivileged city.
Following his stint as a volunteer, Goldstein returned to his brigade and finished specialized training, becoming a full-fledged combat soldier. He wasn’t meant to be a regular infantryman, however, and soon after he began moving up the command ranks. He served as boot camp company commander for the elite naval commando unit Shayetet 13, which undergoes advanced infantry training before moving on to professional naval training, was company commander in the training school for squadron commanders and, with the rank of captain, Goldstein retired from the regular army in his seventh year after serving as assistant head of military operations in the same school for squadron commanders.
As an officer, Goldstein was selected to participate in the “Witnesses in Uniform” program. He flew to Poland with officers from all branches of the military, as representatives of the Jewish state and of the IDF, to bear witness that just as the Jewish people were able to overcome the Nazis and establish the State of Israel, with God’s help, they will be able to overcome any obstacle. “It was a real jolting experience,” he says. “To see the sites where the Nazis almost completely wiped out the Jews really emphasizes the feeling that we have no other land and that we have to protect ourselves. This is the reality of the State of Israel.
“I think it’s very important to serve in the IDF, to serve in any capacity. To serve in the reserves. The trip to the concentration camps in Europe made that really clear to me, and I’m very honored that I merited to be in the Israeli army all these years.”
Goldstein, who married right after basic training and would spend Saturdays on the base in Yeroham with his bride, Michal, went on a year’s trip to see five countries in South America. After the two came back to Israel, Goldstein started studying law and business administration, which propelled him to his career at the Securities Authority, all the while beginning his path as a reservist. He was assigned the role of platoon commander in the 134th Battalion, moving up to assistant company commander and then company commander for a period of five years, which included the Second Lebanon War, and after a short assignment of serving as assistant battalion commander, Goldstein became battalion commander, a position he has held for the past two years.
The People of Israel have been blessed over the years with outstanding men leading their nation’s army. And Goldstein falls in line. He works hard, is determined to achieve his battalion’s goals and is committed to serving his country. He does have one weakness. Ask anyone who’s served with him and they won’t hesitate to say that this flaw is almost rebellious, breaking with tradition of all great IDF commanders throughout the country’s 67-year history. “I don’t like Turkish coffee,” Goldstein says of the strong, unfiltered coffee, which due to its extremely dark complexion is known in Hebrew slang as botz, “mud.” “Everyone’s drinking Turkish coffee all the time. There are camping burners and finjans [small Turkish coffee pots] everywhere you look. So as not to be rude, I always take a cup when anyone offers, smell the aroma, maybe have a little sip, and when no one’s looking I spill it out on the side.”
 The company commander who preceded Goldstein would drink Turkish coffee all the time, and he’d always ask the NCO in charge of logistics to make him a cup. When Goldstein took over, it seemed for him, on a subconscious level at least, that it was only natural that he would follow in his predecessor’s footsteps.
“I’ve just become the new company commander. I come into the tent for our first meeting, our first real discussion. I call to the NCO, Mersik, a big, Italian-like fellow, and I say ‘Mersik, make us some Turkish coffee.’ He’s looking at me confused. And he answers me back: ‘Rafi, you don’t drink Turkish coffee.’ ‘Oh, you’re right,’ I told him. I still don’t know where that request came from. It was just hilarious.”
Goldstein goes against the grain. He drinks instant coffee with milk. He, his signal operator and his driver are in a constant argument about what’s proper coffee, and the two of them freak out every time he drinks it. When he was in battalion commanders course, he received a major upgrade. “Everyone had a finjan, and I had an ice coffee kit,” Goldstein recalls. “You load the shaker with coffee, sugar, ice cubes and UHT long shelf-life milk, shake for a few minutes, and then it’s ready. And let me tell you, to drink ice coffee in the field on a hot a day – it’s heavenly.”
The lieutenant-colonel won’t conform to other people’s tastes. He does know a little bit about cuisine. If he wouldn’t have been able to be what he is today, he would have opted for a career that requires a slightly more delicate touch. “I would have been a chef. I can cook pretty good,” he says, listing his Cornish hen, crispy chicken and mango chutney as world-class offerings. Up north, the competition is fierce, coming via the gourmet cooks, professional chefs and veteran pâtissiers serving in the unit on the northern ridges. The battalion even has its own “diner,” aptly called Restaurant on the Range.
“Still, I make the best shakshuka,” he says, referring to the Middle Eastern meal of poached eggs cooked in a spicy tomato, pepper and onion sauce, which has become one of the army’s unofficial dishes. “It doesn’t get any better than that.”