Forty-two-year-old Anne Neuberger, an Orthodox Jewish woman, was tapped by the National Security Agency as its first chief risk officer, a senior slot if ever there was one. She took the job in 2014 in the wake of Edward Snowden leaking classified NSA information to the world, thus throwing the Pentagon, along with pundits of all political stripes, into a tailspin.
Neuberger was brought on board to help make sure no future Snowdens could slip through the cracks. She has moved up the ranks during her time at the NSA where her duties include operating and defending the Department of Defense’s online information network.
Neuberger is matter-of-fact about all of it. Perhaps its NSA culture or protocol, maybe it’s just Neuberger’s idiosyncratic temperament, but she won’t discuss what she does in any detail, though she admits she’s constantly straddling the line between concerns over national security on the one hand and civil liberty violations on the other. It’s an issue that has resonance for Neuberger. Given her family history, she sees both sides of this complex netherworld all too vividly.
Speaking to me on the phone from NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland, she explained in a soft voice that to this day her father fears authority figures, even cops who pull him over for minor traffic infractions. She says it’s a consequence of his experiences growing up in communist Hungary; in the 1950s, he arrived in the States as a refugee.
All of Neuberger’s grandparents are Auschwitz survivors. Seven of her eight great-grandparents did not make it out. The one who survived (a great-grandfather) jumped off a train carrying him to the death camp, she said, adding that her whole family was part of the mass deportation of Hungarian Jews in 1944.
On the flip side, her parents were saved in 1976 when Israeli commandos stormed the now legendary Air France flight to Paris from Tel Aviv. The flight was unexpectedly diverted to the Entebbe Airport in Uganda and hijacked by the Palestine Liberation Organization, which demanded, in exchange for Israeli hostages, the release of 40 Palestinians and sympathizers being held in Israeli jails.
“The Israelis were separated from everyone else on the flight, forced to crawl into another room through a small space in the wall, bringing to mind the Holocaust,” Neuberger recounted, though she was an infant at the time and had the good fortune to be staying with relatives nowhere near the plane.
“My parents had American passports, but because my father wore a kippah they knew he was Jewish and decided to keep him, too,” she said. “In Yiddish he told my mom to go, but she refused. The other non-Israeli passengers were released. The hijackers held the hostages for a week. At the end of that week the PLO was threatening to start shooting hostages if their demands were not met. Under the cover of darkness, Israeli commandos charged onto the plane and rescued the hostages. A military operation brought my parents home. Sometimes that’s the only option.”
Neuberger’s duties include functioning as a liaison to private tech and defense operations. She says she has a reputation as a “problem solver.” She works approximately 13 hours a day (6:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.), but she leaves an hour before sundown Friday to observe the Sabbath with her family in her kosher home. Growing up in the Boro Park section of Brooklyn in an ultra-Orthodox community of Hungarian Holocaust survivors — a fair number of whom were Hasidic — her first language was Yiddish; today her languages include French, Arabic and Hebrew, in addition to English. Known as “Chani,” she graduated from a local yeshiva and then matriculated into the all-women’s division of Touro (a New York based Orthodox college), where she majored in finance with a minor in computer studies. Her parents were not at all enthusiastic about her going to college.
“But I always wanted to work and dreamed of accomplishing something,” she said. “I had no specific career plan, but I believed in the principle that every person has a purpose and place.”
Neuberger’s family was deeply influenced by the teachings of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein (1895–1986), an iconic Haredi religious leader who taught, among other things, the importance of charitable works. “He said, ‘You have to give at least 10% of your earnings to charity and 10% of your time to a community cause that makes someone’s life easier,’” Neuberger said.
Neuberger’s family is wealthy and philanthropic. When her uncle Michael Karfunkel died last year, the Forward described him and his brother, George Karfunkel (Neuberger’s father), as billionaires. They are among the 100 wealthiest families in America yet virtually unknown outside the Orthodox community. Members of Neuberger’s family have doled out hundreds of millions of dollars in grants through their foundations (one is named in honor of Neuberger and her husband, Yehuda Neuberger) to, most pointedly, their favored religious and educational institutions within their community.
Neuberger is well versed in the business world, having worked for many years in her family’s companies in an array of financial and online capacities.
Not many (if any) high-level staffers at the NSA have private sector credits on their résumé.
“My business background is very much valued here, because I understand budgets and know how to think about strategies and resources,” she said. “That’s something unique that I can offer. People who grew up in government have a more difficult time understanding that you have to control your costs.”
The 9/11 terrorist attacks were a turning point for Neuberger, informing her long-term ambition to move into government and away from the family business. Neuberger understood the potential roadblocks she faced as a married woman who at that time was pregnant with her first child.
She credits her husband, a lawyer who makes his living in private equity — and whom she met on a date prearranged by her parents — with encouraging her to continue her education. In fact, he and her two children moved to Baltimore, following her, when she became a White House fellow, a program initiated by President Johnson to bring into government a diverse mix of high-achieving professionals from a range of midlevel careers.
“Most of the people were 35–40, I was 31,” she said. “There were eight men and six women. Among the eight men, seven were married. Among the six women I was the only one with a husband and family.”
As it turned out, the family liked being in Baltimore, and they decided to stay after Neuberger’s one-year fellowship had ended. As a fellow, she had worked for the secretary of Defense, Robert Gates; a stint with the Navy followed. She was on the founding team of the National Cybersecurity Center, and Gen. Keith Alexander, who served as the NSA director, recruited her to join a small group working under his command.
Life at the NSA has been gratifying on so many levels, “including cutting my commute time in half,” Neuberger said.
Asked about culture shock, Neuberger admits that early on, the holidays she celebrated and the kosher food she ate were alien to her colleagues, but she came to understand that the NSA is an embodiment of tolerance and respect.
“If you are professional in your job and comfortable in adhering to your traditions, everyone will be fine with it,” Neuberger said. “All my coworkers understand that I don’t go out with them for drinks on Friday night and that I observe the Sabbath. In fact, I have assistants who keep their eye on the clock for me Friday afternoons, letting me know that I had better get moving.”
That said, Neuberger does not believe it’s necessary to point to herself as an Orthodox Jew if, for example, she’s confronted in the office by a sexist comment or crude joke. “I wouldn’t say that as an Orthodox Jewish woman it offends me,” she said. “Off-color jokes are an issue for everyone, including men.”
And then there’s the hand-shaking conundrum. Many ultra-Orthodox Jews believe it’s a violation to touch someone of the opposite sex to whom you are not related or married. “I shake hands,” she said. “Jewish law only has trouble with it if it’s an expression of affection between a man and a woman. I don’t view hand-shaking as an expression of affection.”
Neuberger also finds time to volunteer for Sister to Sister (known as S2S), a not-for-profit organization she created for divorced Orthodox Jewish women, most of whom have children, limited resources and, in some instances, few marketable skills.
This is how it started: Twelve years ago, a friend contacted her about a single mom who was raising her children alone and facing major challenges. The friend asked Neuberger for a financial contribution, and got one.
But Neuberger suspected that the single mother in need was not all that anomalous, and that many invisible, stigmatized Orthodox divorcees were in similar straits. Through further research, she discovered there were no organizations within the community to address them.
And so Neuberger started S2S, which provides, among many other services, advocates who are well versed in divorce law; mentoring programs for children of divorce, and, most central, educational and career guidance.
Neuberger does not view herself as a feminist — “I feel feminism has a constrained vision of what is good for a woman” — but she is fully committed to the notion that every woman should be self-sufficient and able to support herself. Today, S2S has 300 volunteers in 30 communities in the United States and Canada, reaching more than 1,100 women and 4,000 children. The organization also partners with a range of social service agencies.
“When I first came to S2S I had a 3-year-old son and two suitcases,” said Fay Jordan, 28. “I was literally starting from scratch. They helped me settle in, find a job, move my divorce forward and mentor my son. One of the connections I made through the organization drove my son for the first few months to kindergarten while I obtained my driver’s license. Anne is wise and humble. She has a warm smile and a charismatic character, always asking, ‘How else can we help you?”
For her part, Neuberger says she is thrilled to be seen as a role model. She never had one, and to this day regrets it, but she’s happy to report that much has changed for young women in the community today.
“My 17-year-old daughter, who attends an Orthodox school, went to a career night two weeks ago where religious women in a range of fields — doctors, lawyers, judges — came to speak to them,” she said. “That would have been unheard of 25 years ago, when I was in high school. And now I want to contribute to that movement and participate in it as much as I can.”
Regarding the major issues that she faces at the NSA, Neuberger said, “Threats from those that want to cause us harm are real and not going away. We have a commitment to defending our nation in lawful ways. Our nation needs to remain vigilant when it comes to cybersecurity. The NSA makes critical contributions to protect the nation.
“Our workforce is the unsung heroes of the agency,” she continued. “Our people make the difference, and most of their work will never be recognized publicly. Making sure that we show them how much they are valued for their work protecting the U.S. is one of the most important things the leaders of the NSA must do.”
Simi Horwitz won a 2018 Front Page Award from the Newswomen’s Club of New York for her Forward profile of Ruchie Freier.