In defense of public service

In defense of public service

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 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; you 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 people 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, more than likely would not think twice of accepting this job offer.

But I, as an Orthodox Jew, had to think twice about it.

Still, once I realized that I would be fulfilling my lifelong dream of public service to my country, which has given so much to me, my family, and my community, I accepted the Army’s offer. It is a decision I will never regret.

At the time of the offer, I was living on New York’s Upper West Side, which is 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. OCPA officials told me I would have to leave New York; my initial assignment would be in Philadelphia with later assignments in Maryland and Washington. When I completed my training I would be assigned to a yet-to-be-determined location based on the needs of the U.S. Army.

I welcomed the opportunity to move back home to Philadelphia, where I was born and raised. While many people probably would hesitate to move many times over the course of 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 move him to places where there is little or no Jewish community or identity. There are plenty of Jewish organizations where I could have worked, serving the Jewish community. I saw OCPA’s fellowship, however, as a unique career opportunity – a way of representing my Jewish roots outside of the Jewish community.

As I began to work for 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 Jews work for our federal government. (I interned at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and had come to this realization then as well.) This is apparent particularly in the national security agencies – 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 toward participating and working within our government? Here is a thought – perhaps relationships and trust are fostered from within, not without.

I believe that many Orthodox Jews share an unspoken fear that leaving their communities would mean risking the loss of their Jewish identity and possibly losing their religious observance. I can tell you from personal experience that this fear has no basis. I have found that since I took on my new role, quite the opposite has occurred. If you have been empowered with a tightly rooted Jewish identity by your family, school, and community, then working 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. 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 welcomed me into its 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 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 people 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 Yeshiva University to recruit new talent. This is largely because our community does not show an active interest in taking part in public service.

It is vital for religious Jews of all ages to be involved in public service in some form or another, but 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 Orthodox friends do not consider public service for a career. I firmly believe and hope that by educating my peers in the Orthodox community I can show them that you can work in a government position and maintain your religious practice.

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 not only to serve our community but our country as well. I encourage everyone in my community to get involved.