Public Careers: A Conversation with Dovi Meles from the US Dept. of Defense

Dovi Meles majored in psychology at Yeshiva University and graduated in 2009. Later, he studied at Temple University for a graduate degree in social work, aiming for a job in Jewish non-profit organizations. A few months ago, however, Meles got a call from the Pentagon offering him work at the Department of Defense. The position, which Meles accepted, was in the US Army’s Public Affairs internship program, training recent graduates to become Army Public Affairs specialists. Upon completion, Meles, the first religious Jew in his program, will be tasked with explaining the complexities of the U.S. Army to the outside world.

For Meles, working in the Army is a meaningful job, and it fills what he considers to be a void within the Jewish community at large. “I think it’s deeply important for religious Jews of all ages to be involved in public service,” he told the Beacon. Working inside the Department of Defense, Meles hopes to build strong relationships with federal officials, in a way that is “vastly different than pro-Israel lobbies like AIPAC, ZOA, and other NGOs.” Instead of working from the outside, he wants to influence the workings of the government from inside its various systems.

To Meles, the importance of public service makes it all the more disappointing that most orthodox students, Yeshiva University graduates included, do not consider it for a career. “The US government pours money into training fellowships and internship opportunities, but by and large, they don’t come to recruit YU students,” said Meles. “There is a lack of frum students that are interested in public policy and the political process.” Nevertheless, it’s important for Jews to foster relationships between Israel and America, and the fact that “we are so under-represented in the executive branch of government” should galvanize students to public policy action. “How many YU alumni are working at the State Department or the Department of Defense?” asked Meles. If I can do my part to get more students interested, that’s my way of giving back” he said.

Part of the problem may be the demands that public service can make on religious goals. In remote workstations, it’s often difficult to find kosher food and an Orthodox community for minyanim, dating, and other socio-religious needs. In the federal government specifically, most jobs are in Washington D.C., home to a relatively small Orthodox community that is far from mainstream communities in New York and New Jersey.

Nevertheless, when I asked about religion in the military, Meles confidently spoke about how accommodating his job has been thus far. “There hasn’t been any issue at all with Shabbos or kashrus,” he said. He also spoke of how moving to new places helps people network and leads to interesting opportunities. “If you live in D.C., almost everyone you meet is in the government or involved public policy.” It’s therefore worthwhile to move out of one’s comfort zone for job opportunities. “If there is an ideal job that could really launch your career, but it’s out of the New York area, think long and hard about it before rejecting it,” Meles said.

Meles himself is currently stationed in Philadelphia, for the first year of a two year training fellowship with the Army. He works out of Philly’s District Office of the Army Corp of Engineers, a branch of the military responsible for construction, research, and engineering. The Army Corps is known for making bridges, dams, and other projects for military and civilian infrastructures, but in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, it plays a much larger role. Along with FEMA, it is the federal government’s primary relief agency for New Jersey’s beaches. “The Philadelphia district of the Army Corp oversees much of the NJ coastline, so it’s a very interesting time to be in this office,” says Meles. “I had the opportunity to survey parts of the Barrier Islands and it was horrible, like nothing I have ever seen in my entire life.” said Meles. “It will probably take years to repair everything.”

In a larger sense, Meles’ coveted 2 year army fellowship is a stepping stone to what he sees as a lifelong career in public service. When I asked him where he sees himself in twenty years, Meles spoke passionately of his deep interest in transition policy, concerned with military personnel returning from deployment abroad. “I’ll be living on base at Fort Meade, taking strategic communications classes with military officers, and then to the Pentagon,” he says with enthusiasm.

These government work opportunities, in Meles’ eyes, have a specific and important value. “This is the kind of training you are not going to get anywhere else,” he said of the Army’s various fellowships and internship opportunities. “The government is vast, and there are so many chances to learn, to grow, and to lead.” His words also emphasize the on-the-job nature of his training, which teaches skills to workers no matter the undergraduate background. “Working in the government, there’s no clear-cut degree you need” says Meles. “Most people working here went to grad school, but in law, history, social science, administration, or business.”

To Meles, it’s still important to get involved in policy and political campaigns while in college. “I don’t know if there are enough students who are actively involved in campaigns,” he said, “but students should get involved however they can.” Work with Senators, as well as other volunteer policy work, builds relationships and gives a preliminary taste for students who want to make a difference later in life. As such, Meles urges students to increase their government participation in any way they can. “I would like to help build that relationship between YU and the government,” he said.

Before hanging up, I asked Meles about the aftermath of our recent Presidential elections. In Meles’ mind, the motivation to make a difference is especially important after government changes. Whereas those who support Obama have someone to cheer for, those who supported Romney now have more reasons to get involved. “At the end of the day, if you’re to the right of the President, you have all the more reason to make a difference,” said Meles, in a comment that I thought was exactly congruent with his work and previous advice for Yeshiva students. “If something you don’t like happens, it should bring you to get involved for your country and yourself.”