At The NSA, A Rising Star's Commitment To Faith — And Public Service : Parallels The National Security Agency's chief risk officer grew up in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community that didn't encourage women to work outside the home. But she credits her faith for her achievements.
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At The NSA, A Rising Star's Commitment To Faith — And Public Service

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At The NSA, A Rising Star's Commitment To Faith — And Public Service

At The NSA, A Rising Star's Commitment To Faith — And Public Service

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LYNN NEARY, HOST:

And now, a profile of someone who's religious upbringing has shaped her career in some unusual ways. Anne Neuberger is the chief risk officer at the National Security Agency, meaning she helps to identify the country's biggest security threats. She comes from an ultra-Orthodox Jewish community that did not encourage women to work outside the home. But Neuberger says her upbringing actually guided her on the path she took. NPR religion correspondent Tom Gjelten has her story.

TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: NSA officials often call on industry leaders for help in monitoring the threats coming into the country. In recent years, that assignment has often gone to Anne Neuberger; 39 years old and one of the NSA's rising stars.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

ANNE NEUBERGER: Good afternoon all. It is really wonderful to be here.

GJELTEN: Neuberger wants these tech executives to understand the NSA view. It has to consider how far it can go in collecting threat intelligence, connecting dots without going too far and violating Americans' privacy rights. She thinks executives should recognize that kind of risk calculation because they have to weigh the cost of taking too few security precautions against the cost of spending more in security than they need to.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

NEUBERGER: In the private sector, risk is often measured against a financial bottom line; whereas for NSA and the larger intelligence community, our bottom line is the security of the country...

GJELTEN: Since joining the government a decade ago, Neuberger has worked at the Pentagon and helped plan the U.S. military's Cyber Command. But what makes her story unique is where she came from and how it took her to the top of the U.S. national security establishment. She grew up in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn; a Hasidic neighborhood largely segregated from the secular world. As a girl, Anne went by her Hebrew name, Chani. She spoke Yiddish at home and attended an all-girls Jewish school where half the day was devoted to religious instruction. A woman in her ultra-Orthodox community was expected to think of herself first as a wife and mother and was not an environment that normally supported professional aspirations. Those who know her say Anne Neuberger's achievements make her stand out.

FAIGIE HOROWITZ: Anyone who's studied women's success in the workforce - it's all about having mentors. And her generation did not really have mentors.

GJELTEN: Faigie Horowitz grew up in the same Brooklyn neighborhood as Anne, Chani Neuberger. Now, she's a career counselor serving ultra-Orthodox women.

HOROWITZ: Chani is of that generation where the mothers may have gone out to work, but certainly they were not out there in the bigger world with an education.

GJELTEN: Some Orthodox Jewish women find professional success only after breaking with their community. Not Anne Neuberger. She married an Orthodox man she met on a parent-arranged date. They keep kosher. Neuberger leaves the NSA every Friday in time to observe the Sabbath. She remains close to her religious community. This has largely to do with her family history. The neighborhood where she was raised was settled largely by Jews who escaped Nazi gas chambers because, at the time, they were young and strong and therefore suitable for slave labor assignments.

NEUBERGER: I didn't realize 'til I grew older that, you know, the oldest people in the community were pretty much all the same age; most had lost their parents. My mom says growing up, nobody had grandparents.

GJELTEN: Of Anne's eight great-grandparents, seven perished in the death camps. Their surviving children, Anne's grandparents, started new lives in America. They were ultra-Orthodox back in Europe, and in America traumatized by their war experiences, they reaffirmed that identity.

NEUBERGER: There was deep sense among my grandparents that their parents had been killed for their faith and they had an obligation to bring up a generation who that faith and that tradition was meaningful to them and to re-create it in these kids who were proving that, you know, Hitler had not been successful at eradicating this commitment to faith.

GJELTEN: Among those postwar kids were Anne's parents.

NEUBERGER: So we heard a lot of that growing up, that sense of you're a link. You're a link in a family chain that was broken, but it's our obligation to rebuild that link.

GJELTEN: So Anne Neuberger inherited her religious commitment, but she has defined it in her own way. Her Jewish faith includes the notion that people with talents should make the most of them. Knowing that those who came before her had their lives cut short reinforces that conviction.

NEUBERGER: That sense that time is a gift and that one should use it to do good, you know. I try to lead an examined life. I try to lead a life where I'm asking myself that question. Have I earned the gift of existence in some way?

GJELTEN: As a girl, Anne was determined to further her education even if it meant challenging tradition.

NEUBERGER: The Orthodox Jewish community tends to be more conservative about gender roles. And I think, for my parents, the thought that a young girl would go alone to a college environment was something frightening for them. So we struck a deal, and I went to an all-girls night school.

GJELTEN: One that catered to ultra-Orthodox girls. She excelled in computer skills and helped run a financial services company. After marriage, she attended graduate school. Then came 9/11 when she was inspired to do national security work. Neuberger wanted to serve the country that gave her grandparents and parents a refuge. She left Brooklyn to become a White House fellow. Her life choices have worked out for Anne Neuberger, but she knows other ultra-Orthodox women have problems. Marriages sometimes end. Women who felt duty-bound to stay home and raise children may find themselves without support.

NEUBERGER: The role of the family is a core part of religious practice. And as a result, women who are left alone, women raising children alone sometimes talk about a sense of feeling isolated, of feeling judged and the children feeling judged.

GJELTEN: Neuberger's understanding of that reality led her to start a charity she calls Sister to Sister. It operates in Orthodox Jewish communities around the country serving single mothers who are not prepared to support a family.

(SOUNDBITE OF SISTER TO SISTER MEETING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: If someone has never had a college education, is that OK?

HOROWITZ: Yeah, but you're going to have to learn something.

GJELTEN: Counselor Faegie Horowitz was among those on hand one recent Sunday morning for a Sister to Sister career day at a community center in Brooklyn. Anne Neuberger visiting her old new neighborhood was the host.

(SOUNDBITE OF SISTER TO SISTER MEETING)

NEUBERGER: Starting something new is not easy, but with us, and I think that everything we try to do with Sister to Sister, the goal is to say we're sisters. We're here to offer a helping hand. Please call us. Please reach out for us because we're really in this together.

GJELTEN: The women here dressed modestly. They wear head coverings or wigs. They are observant Orthodox women. But most are divorced, and they're struggling. Anne Neuberger tells them that if not for the vagaries of life, they could be in each other's shoes. She has found that a commitment to ultra-Orthodoxy doesn't have to be a career impediments. It actually helps her deal with workplace challenges.

NEUBERGER: The discipline and rigor, you know - restrictions in what one can eat, restrictions in how one behaves - I hope I that in, you know, values, living true to one's values, trying to bring that integrity into the way you approach your job each day and how you interact with people every single day.

GJELTEN: Anne Neuberger's point - her achievements have come not in spite of her faith but because of it. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.

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