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Orthodox Jews and Public Service
The nomination of Jack Lew to Secretary of the Treasury means that, if confirmed, an Orthodox Jew will hold one of the highest-ranking positions in our government. Lew’s dedication to public service should help motivate the Orthodox community to re-evaluate its record of such service. It’s important for our community to explore careers in public service because they are rewarding opportunities to serve our country.
My own such career began after years of working in Jewish nonprofits. I started as an intern at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. That internship sparked my interest and took me to Washington to work with the U.S. Army’s Wounded Warrior Program.
Today, I work for the Office of the Chief of Public Affairs, known within the Army as OCPA. It fulfills the Army’s obligation to keep citizens and the Army informed. The job is not easy; you must explain the Army’s intricacies while protecting national security.
As I began this job, I was reminded how few Orthodox Jews work in 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, to volunteer and to work for Jewish organizations that advocate change, but never to help shape policy decisions from inside the government. Why not? Why does the Jewish establishment tend to focus its resources on building relationships from the outside rather than encouraging people to build them from within?
There is, I believe, an unspoken fear among many Orthodox Jews that leaving their communities means risking the loss of their Jewish identity and potentially losing their observance. I can tell you from personal experience, this fear has no basis.
Since taking on my new role, I have found that quite the opposite has occurred. If one has been empowered with a tightly rooted Jewish identity by family and community, then working in the secular realm, in a country that allows religious freedom, should assuage any fears.
In fact, working for the Army has strengthened my Jewish identity. I have not changed who I am and what I believe. The non-Jewish community and, in particular, the military community, has treated me as an equal. I am respected for who I am and what I believe in.
The federal government invests a significant amount of money in training individuals for fellowships and internships in all branches of the government with the promise of enriching and rewarding careers. But by and large, however, the government does not go to Orthodox campuses such as Touro College and Yeshiva University to recruit new talent. This is, in part, because our community does not show an active interest in public service.
This is a problem. 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.
Once Orthodox Jews show an interest in such careers, government recruiters will take an active role in hiring people from the Orthodox Jewish community. I have been both humbled and inspired by this historic nomination of Jack Lew. It should remind each and every one of us that we should be proud not only to serve our community but our country as well. l
Dovi Meles, a native of Philadelphia, is a graduate of Yeshiva University and Temple University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.