I was at an employee leadership conference the other day, speaking from the podium and telling Environmental Protection Agency colleagues about my views on leadership. Eventually, my formal remarks were done and we opened the floor to questions. That’s when it really became interesting.
One of our staff members asked me whether I felt my personal life – specifically my religious beliefs – ever interfered with or inhibited my work. I thought that was a terrific question and almost leapt thru the microphone to respond. I told her emphatically, “No, my personal and professional beings are almost never in conflict. In fact, I think people have a tendency to respect devotion – whether it’s devotion to an ideal, a religion or a purpose, or all three.”
As an Orthodox Jew, I may miss an hour or two of work for Shabbat, but, as my staff can tell you, I more than make up for it with the follow-up phone calls and e-mails. And, yes, I may have a few more holidays than others, but I can’t say any major decision has been stalled because of my absence – again my staff and I stay in close contact to ensure continuity and expediency.
Far from causing any conflict, my personal and professional lives have often intertwined – and often for the better. I have always been sensitive to issues that affect the Jewish people and Israel, in particular. For inspiration, I go back to the Bible and, when it comes to loyalty, I recall the passage in which Mordechai told Esther not to forget her people.
That biblical passage served me well in 1992 and 1993 when I was employed as senior policy adviser to then-New Jersey State Assembly Speaker Garabed “Chuck” Haytaian. Chuck’s uncle was one of the Armenians murdered in the mass killings during the final days of the Ottoman Empire. A large portion of my extended family had been killed in Poland during the Holocaust. Chuck was an outspoken advocate on matters related to genocide and, under his guidance, I had the honor of crafting legislation that mandated the study of the Holocaust and other genocides in the New Jersey public school system.
It was a source of great pride to me when my son studied the Holocaust as a student in Cherry Hill.
When I worked for the Whitman administration in New Jersey state government – first as assistant commissioner of the state Department of Commerce and Economic Development and later as executive director of the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission – in addition to all of my other official duties I was asked to review all of the governor’s invitations and speeches for Jewish events. I felt quite privileged.
During that period, I was chosen to participate in two Holocaust education tours through Eastern Europe. On one of those missions, I visited the towns of Rozan and Pultusk in Poland, where my grandfather, great-grandparents and their ancestors resided. I will never forget the impact of those visits or my visits to the Nazi concentration camp sites in Poland.
Little did I think, when I was appointed regional administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the Bush administration, that I would have any workplace connection to Israel, yet I should have known that my personal and work lives would, in fact, once again blend together fruitfully.
Not long after settling into my new position with EPA in 2005, I received a call from our headquarters in Washington. The caller indicated that the government of Israel needed our help and we made arrangements to send several of our hazardous waste experts to consult with Dr. Avishay Braverman, president of Ben-Gurion University in the Negev, on the Ramat Hovav chemical manufacturing and hazardous waste disposal site.
Our people were instrumental in helping the Israeli Ministry of the Environment determine whether a particular technology was appropriate for an industrial cleanup in the Negev. And earlier this year, one of our scientists traveled to Tel Aviv to consult with the Ministry of the Environment on asbestos issues and lead a workshop on the subject.
One thing I’ve taken away from these experiences is that pollution knows no international boundaries.
Everyone and every country has a stake in a clean and healthy environment, and any time we can use our expertise and experience to help another country with an environmental issue, we are more than prepared to contribute. When that other country is Israel, I take additional pride in our ability to make a difference.