Ben was nominated as Jewish Advocate of the Week by fellow Tufts alumni and Jewish Foodie of the Week, Julie. I had the opportunity to ask Ben about his diverse interests, how they come together in his work and life, and of course who his favorite Jew is! Learn more about Ben in his interview below.
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Jackie: What brought you to DC?
Ben: DC is the third city I have lived in; I was born and raised in Pittsburgh and went to school in the Boston area. In my mind, these three cities are very similar. They are of a similar geographic size, have fantastic cultural institutions, and have strong communities (Jewish and otherwise). I spent a summer in DC while I was in college, and knew I could see myself living here afterward. During my senior year, I was able to find a job in the city.
Jackie: In college, you studied Peace and Justice Studies and Physics. What drew you to these polar opposite pursuits?
Ben: The first time I walked into a physics class, I fell in love with the subject. Math had always come easily to me, but I found it boring. With physics, math finally had a use and a fantastic one with that! Early physics courses so clearly translate to our experienced reality (mechanics, magnetism, etc.), that I was able to apply this framework to my universe in a way that thrilled me. I felt compelled to learn as much as I could about the subject.
However, I’ve always had a commitment to doing something for others beyond myself. My grandparents were Holocaust survivors, and there has always been a nagging within me to make sure I make a difference in the world. Tufts University, where I attended college, offered this interdisciplinary program in Peace and Justice Studies, which I was immediately drawn to. I viewed it as a “Choose Your Own Adventure” major, as I was able to take courses in philosophy, anthropology, English literature, sociology, among many others. Rather than studying two disciplines, I could study five or six – but with a common thread. By the time I reached my senior year, I attempted to combine these pursuits: what is the relationship between science and society? My thesis attempted to justify government funding for scientific research, and my capstone explored the public understanding of scientific language. In my mind, they aren’t polar at all.
Jackie: You now work as a lobbyist. What causes are you advocating for?
Ben: This certainly was not a job I ever expected. I work exclusively with institutions of higher education, research associations, and laboratory facilities that are nonprofits or public. In essence, I advocate for continued public investment in scientific research. Given my background in physics, I work more on the physical sciences side, including engineering, energy research, and “smart cities.” Since WWII, the federal government has been one of the biggest funders of research on a spectrum from basic (think, discovering the Higgs Boson) to applied (think, making solar panels better). Universities and scientific societies do a great bulk of this research, and it’s important to make sure that Congress is supportive of science.
Jackie: How do you pursue your interest in Urban Planning and architecture?
Ben: This is a personal interest that I have been pleasantly surprised to also work on it in my day job. Pittsburgh (my hometown) has changed significantly over the past 30 years, not unlike many major cities throughout the U.S., including Washington, DC. There are whole wards in DC that look nothing like they did 30 years ago, and while that can come with significant benefits, it also can hurt residents who live here and who have lived here. During the Obama administration, a confluence of events led to an increased interest in cities. Open data initiatives at the federal, state, and local levels have made cities “smarter,” insofar as they are more efficient in delivering services. A number of cities have hired Chief Innovation Officers to help integrate technologies into their cities. I’m fascinated by how cities will change in the next 20 years, and getting to work with “anchor institutions,” such as universities, that are studying and changing their own cities has been a great experience. I also tend to do a lot of reading, with City Observatory, The Atlantic’s City Lab, and Planetizen all being great sources.
Jackie: What do you like to do for fun in DC?
Ben: It’s incredible how much DC has to do. I try to frequent the museums as often they have new exhibits. The National Portrait Gallery/National Gallery of American Art is a favorite, as is the National Building Museum. A number of friends from both Pittsburgh and Tufts have also moved to DC, so it’s also good to see them, either grabbing a meal, walking through Rock Creek Park, or having them over for Shabbat Dinner.
Jackie: You have been on many world travels! Where is your favorite place you’ve traveled to?
Ben: Favorites are hard for me. I was just in Colombia, though, and that was an incredible experience. I traveled alone for a week in Bogota and Medellin, and so enjoyed my time there. Medellin has changed so much during my lifetime, and it was incredible to see.
Jackie: Who is your favorite Jew?
Ben: Again, favorites are hard, but among Jewish historical figures I think I would go with Abraham Joshua Heschel.
Finish the sentence: When the Jews Gather… it is sure to be interesting!