The call from the Department of the Army came to me on a random day in the summer of 2012, an unexpected offer to serve our country as an army civilian. The opportunity presented to me that afternoon had all the perks that any young professional would dream of–on-the-job training, continuing education, and mentorship and apprenticeship, in addition to job stability and security with lifelong benefits and opportunity for job growth with the federal government. The catch, however, would be a commitment of two years of public service to our military–anywhere in the world.
The offer came from the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs, known within the army as OCPA. Headquartered in Washington DC, OCPA is the United States Army command responsible for explaining and justifying the intricacies of the army to the public. OCPA fulfills the army’s obligation to keep the American people and the army informed.
The job is not an easy one; one must explain and balance the intricacies of the United States Army while protecting national security interests. Upon learning more about the position and its responsibilities, I began to realize what an honor and privilege it would be to join a group of unique individuals who undertake such a complex mandate with integrity and pride. Who was I to turn down such an offer?
The average young professional fresh out of graduate school with limited job experience, especially in today’s economy, would more than likely not think twice before accepting this job offer. I, however, as an Orthodox Jew, had to think twice about it. Once I realized I would be fulfilling my lifelong dream of public service to my country, which has given so much to me, my family, and community, I graciously accepted the army’s offer, a decision I will never regret.
At the time of the offer, I was living on New York’s Upper West Side, a bastion of Modern Orthodoxy and the place to live if you are young, single, and Jewish. At the time, I was working for a Jewish not-for-profit, where I gained valuable work skills but yearned for higher job growth. I was told by OCPA officials that I would have to leave New York, as the initial assignment would be in Philadelphia, with later assignments in Maryland and Washington, DC. Upon completion of my training, I would be assigned to a yet to be determined location based on the needs of the U.S. Army.
Not originally being from New York, I welcomed the opportunity to move back home to Philadelphia, where I was born and raised. While many would probably hesitate to move multiple times over two years, I saw it as a unique chance to live in and explore other cities while serving the needs of our country.
You may be wondering what young, single, Orthodox Jewish professional would give up a stable job in New York City and take on a career that could potentially move him to places where there is little or no Jewish community or identity. True, there are plenty of Jewish organizations I could have worked for serving the Jewish community; however, I saw OCPA’s Fellowship as a unique career opportunity and a way of representing my Jewish roots outside of the Jewish community.
As I began work at the Department of Army, I quickly came to realize, just as I had realized previously when I was interning at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, just how few Orthodox Jewish people there are working for our federal government. This is especially apparent in national security agencies like Defense, Homeland Security, and State. As a student in Yeshiva University, I remember being encouraged to understand political developments and realities by working through the dozens of Jewish organizations that exist, but never to help shape policy decisions directly from inside the government.
Why is there such apathy within our community towards participating and working within our government? Here is a thought: perhaps, relationships and trust are fostered from within, not without?
There is, I believe, an unspoken fear by many Orthodox Jewish people that leaving their communities would mean risking the loss of their Jewish identity and potentially losing their religious observance. I can tell you from personal experience this fear has no basis. I have found that since taking on my new role, quite the opposite has occurred. If one has been empowered with a tightly rooted Jewish identity by family, school, and community, working then in the secular realm, in a country that allows freedom of religion, should assuage any fears of alienation.
To the contrary, my Jewish identity has been strengthened in my new career and I have not changed who I am and what I believe nor been swayed by anyone. The non-Jewish community, and in particular the military community, has treated me as an equal and has welcomed me into their ranks. I am respected for who I am and what I believe in. Since many of my coworkers have not worked with Orthodox Jews in the past, I am many times seen more as a curiosity.
I am asked many questions about my practices simply because most people are unaware of what we believe and why we practice the way we do. I find it sad that many members of our community have isolated themselves to the point where we are aware of our secular neighbors, yet they know nothing about us. How can we create unity and religious tolerance in this country if we refuse to proudly show who we are?
For me, working for the U.S. Army is much more than just a paycheck. In addition to an exciting and fulfilling career, my job is filling what I consider a real void within the Orthodox Jewish community. The federal government invests a significant amount of money into training individuals for fellowships and internships in all branches of the government with the promise for enriching and rewarding careers. But, by and large, the government does not go to Orthodox Jewish colleges such as Touro and YU to recruit new talent. This is in large part because our community does not show an active interest in partaking in public service.
It is vital for religious Jews of all ages to be involved in public service in some form or another. Yet the number of those opting to pursue professional career paths in this field is embarrassingly low. My passion and commitment to public service makes it all the more disappointing that most of my fellow Orthodox friends do not consider it for a career. I firmly believe and hope that by educating my peers in the Orthodox community, I can show them one is capable of working in a government position while maintaining their religious practices.
Once Orthodox Jews show an active interest in such careers, government recruiters will take a more active role in hiring people from within the Orthodox Jewish community. We should be proud to serve not only our community but our country as well. I encourage everyone in my community to get involved. v
Dovi Meles holds a master’s degree in social work from Temple University and a BA in psychology from Yeshiva University. He has held numerous positions within Jewish nonprofit organizations. In his current position, he works for the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs at the United States Army. He can be reached at email@example.com.