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, 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, D.C., OCPA is the U.S. 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 the U.S. 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 of accepting this job offer. I, however, as an Orthodox Jew, had to think twice about it. 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. 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, D.C. 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. 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.
As I began work at the Department of the 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 the departments of Defense, Homeland Security and State. As a student at Yeshiva University, I remember being encouraged to understand political developments and realities via 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 toward participating and working within our government?
There is, I believe, an unspoken fear among 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.
In my new career, my Jewish identity has been strengthened, 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 co-workers 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 in this country create unity and religious tolerance 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 its being an exciting and fulfilling career, my job is filling what I consider to be 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 of enriching and rewarding careers. But, by and large, the government does not go to Orthodox Jewish colleges such as Touro and Yeshiva University to recruit new talent. This is in part because our community does not show an active interest in public service. It is vital for religious Jews of all ages to be involved in public service in some form. Yet the numbers of those opting to pursue professional career paths in this field are embarrassingly low. My passion and commitment to public service make 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 that one is capable of working in a government position while maintaining one’s 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 not only serve our community but our country as well. I encourage everyone in my community to get involved.
Dovi Meles holds a master’s degree in social work from Temple University and a B.A. 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 of the United States Army. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.