A Wandering Jewess in Central Asia
It has been thirteen years since I graduated with a degree in Jewish Communal Service as a Wexner Fellow. During this time I have sometimes struggled with guilt over my decision not to pursue my career in the Jewish world, especially since my education was paid for by the Wexner Foundation. Last summer I received tenure as a Foreign Service Officer with the US Agency for International Development, where I work as a Democracy and Governance Officer. What this hopefully means is that I will spend the next twenty odd years living and working overseas in an effort to promote democracy and good governance in developing countries. I live in places that are usually in the US news only when crises strike them or have the perennial associations with poverty, disease and backwardness. This work appeals to what most would call “shpilkes”, as every two to four years I get to move to a new country and reinvent myself. In what is both a trying and exhilarating effort, I get to learn a new culture, have new colleagues and a somewhat new job every time I move. I don’t think there are many professions that allow one to go through so many metamorphoses while enjoying uninterrupted health and pension benefits. The highs and lows of this life have left indelible imprints on me – of humanity’s potential and darkness – as I have had a ringside seat for events that will enter history books – from the horror of Beslan in Russia’s North Caucasus at the very start of my vagabond career to the first peaceful and democratic transition of power in Central Asia. Every place I go to leaves me enriched, as it surely teaches me something – about me and about the world we live in. I am privileged to have the daunting task of turning people’s aspirations into reality. My work is guided by the belief that in the long run democracies deliver development and security better for their people than dictatorships and that this has a direct impact on our lives as Americans.
I sought out a Jewish Communal Service degree with a desire to work in the Jewish community. Having been assisted by the Joint Distribution Committee during my family’s journey from the USSR to the US and then interning there in college, I came in search of the skills and knowledge that would allow me to spend my career working with the world-wide Jewish community. Sadly, what I found upon graduation was that there was very little place for me professionally in the Jewish world to do this kind of work, and that the wider world needed so much of the leadership learning I had been so fortunate to gain.
In all the places where I have lived, I have in some ways connected to the Jewish community – from leading a Tu B’Shvat Seder in Macedonia to hosting a Pesach Seder in Monrovia, in what we now refer to as the Monrovia Matzah Miracle – the matzah arriving on the last possible diplomatic pouch before the seder. At USAID we have a Jewish Affinity Group through which the Jewish Foreign Service Officers keep in touch and welcome each other into our homes when we may find ourselves in the same location around the globe.
So why do I still think about my time as a Wexner Fellow all these years hence? I value the education I received for I believe that it made me into the professional that I am today. The idea of “process leading to a better product” is not exclusive to the Jewish community, as time and again I find that when I and my colleagues respect the process we get much better results. My graduate education taught me the power of inclusion of diverse voices in decision-making and the importance of offering people the opportunity to be heard, even when the final decision may not reflect their wishes. As per the advice of the late Bernie Reisman’s (z’l), I smile before picking up the phone, always answering it with a “how may I help you” and reply to people as soon as I can – respecting their time and efforts. I chant the five “P”’s like a mantra – “proper planning prevents poor performance” as planning is the cornerstone of government work.
I don’t know if I will ever work professionally in the Jewish community. I have already worked at the UN – a promise I had made at age 14 and here’s hoping for another good twenty years with USAID. Having been turned into a lifelong planner, I am already thinking of what I may do after I leave USAID. Private foundations hold an allure, as I would like to see what one can do philanthropically when one is not bound by congressional budget debates, earmarks and other bureaucratic restrictions. Perhaps one day I might sunset my career still being able to provide for the needs and aspirations of Jewish communities around the world just like I dreamed many moons ago.
Dinah Zeltser Winant is a Democracy and Governance Officer with the US Agency for International Development currently posted to Almaty in Central Asia and will soon transition to Pakistan. Her previous postings include Liberia, Somalia, Uganda, Bosnia, Georgia, Russia and Macedonia. She is married to a fellow Foreign Service Officer and collects jewelry. from every country she visits. She is a graduate of the Heller/Hornstein program at Brandeis University and a Wexner Graduate Fellowship alumna (Class 11). She can be reached at email@example.com.