Meet Sam, Jewish Climate Research Analyst of the Week!

by Samuel Milligan / March 13, 2024

The GatherDC blog strives to present a holistic portrait of the DMV’s Jewish community, sharing a wide variety of Jewish voices and perspectives. If you have a 20- or 30-something to nominate as our Jewish Person of the Week or for a Spotted in Jewish DMV feature, please email us!

Meet Sam! We sat down together last month at the Foxtrot near Farragut Square to talk about climate research and policy, frisbee, searching for a religious community, The Golem of Brooklyn, Oppenheimer, the Manhattan Project, and Aaron Sorkin at the Shabbat table!

Sam out in the woods.

Samuel: Hi, Sam! Thanks for joining me today. What brought you to the DMV?

Sam: I came to DC for work, primarily. It was always my goal to work on policy, and I work for the EFI Foundation. We look at solutions like carbon capture, hydrogen, and bioenergy, and the way innovation can deal with really difficult emissions to reduce on our way to decarbonization.  

Samuel: You’ve been here for six years – what’s made DC feel like home? 

Sam: I feel a strong attachment to DC. My dad is from here, and I grew up [hearing about] the importance of DC statehood and independence. DC also feels like the perfect sized city for me. Anything you want in terms of culture, restaurants, and community is going to be here.

Sam tosses a disc.

I play Ultimate Frisbee, and like meeting people and having that be a part of my life. I play in a regular pickup game in Petworth, and also play in and volunteer for the Washington Area Frisbee Club

Samuel: What does your Jewish community look like right now? 

Sam: That’s tough to answer. I feel like I’m still looking for a religious community in DC; I haven’t found a synagogue to go to on a consistent basis. The big part of Jewish DC life for me has been going to events oriented around culture, politics, and learning, including a few through Gather, the JCC, Sixth & I, and Dayenu. That was a great experience and a great way to meet other people who were Jewish and interested in climate change.

Sam at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. I am still looking for that permanent [religious] community. I consider myself a religious person, but my practice is more in the day-to-day and personal, as opposed to going to services. Going back to college, it’s always felt like something I enjoy when I’m able to do it, but don’t always have time for. It’s tough to find a community, commit the time, and really feel a part of it. 

Samuel: What is your perfect DMV day? 

Sam: I’ll go back to my birthday, which was earlier this month. I went to the African American History Museum to see their Afrofuturism exhibit. I love sci-fi, and it’s particularly important to me as a climate researcher to think about ways of imagining the future. It was a fun overlap of my professional interest with my partner’s, since she’s an English PhD student. Also, they have one of Chadwick Boseman’s original costumes from Black Panther! 

Then, I was craving burgers, so I tried Hill East for the first time, and I had friends over to bake…that’s my ideal structure for a day. A museum, some great food, and spending time with friends. 

Samuel: What’s something that most people don’t know about climate and energy policy that you find fascinating? 

Hiking with friends.Sam: I’ve worked a lot on carbon dioxide removal – so not just ways to reduce the emissions going into the atmosphere, but also to remove the ones that are already there.

The options range from planting trees to really novel technologies like direct air capture. Carbon removal is a really necessary part of dealing with the climate problem because, even if we were to move everything to zero carbon sources of energy, there would still be emissions – from agriculture, from cement, from airplanes. We already have so much greenhouse gas emissions that the climate will keep warming, so we need something that will provide those negative emissions.

I’m thinking about how we could treat [the climate crisis] the way we treat public education or highways or lighthouses: this huge piece of infrastructure that becomes the government’s responsibility [Editor’s note: Read more about Sam’s work on this issue here!]. A lot of people spend time thinking about market solutions, but sometimes you might need a big infrastructure, big government solution where there is no market solution.

Sam speaking on a panel.

Samuel: Do you connect your work on climate change to your Judaism at all? 

Sam: For me, the motivation is not so much about polar bears or magnificent vistas; it’s about people. It’s an instinct that comes from my Judaism – helping other people and trying to achieve some measure of justice. This is a problem for humanity with human lives, wellbeing, and equality at stake. I feel an obligation to put right what I see wrong in the world, and that is a specifically Jewish motivation for me. 

Another connection between Judaism and environmentalism is the way that we’re influenced by Judaism being an agrarian religion, where many of our rituals are tied to agricultural cycles; it’s a really interesting lens through which to think about our relationship to the natural world.

Sam blowing the Shofar.Samuel: A few quick ones to close. What’s something you’re feeling proud about right now?

Sam: I’ve been trying to work on my skills as a professional communicator: researching, writing, and presenting tough concepts in a way that people will understand. I think I’ve been getting a lot more effective, and I’m feeling accomplished. Though, I suppose this blog post will be a good test of how I’m doing.

Samuel: What’s something you’re obsessed with right now? 

Sam: It’s timely because Oscar nominations just came out, but I have a lot of thoughts about the Manhattan Project, and Oppenheimer has been such a big part of people’s consciousnesses this year. My first internship in DC was at a nonprofit that did historical preservation around the Manhattan Project, and it was a fascinating period of history to learn about.

One thing I’ve been particularly thinking about is how many of the scientists working on it were Jewish, and their motivations. All these scientists who were Jewish, or had Jewish family, were confronting the thought that the Nazis were working on an atomic bomb. That idea was terrifying, and specifically terrifying to them because of their Jewishness.

Samuel: Are there any resources you’d recommend to people curious about the Manhattan Project? 

Sam: The Making of the Atomic Bomb by Richard Rhodes, which is a classic history of both nuclear physics and the Manhattan Project, including the backstories of key scientists. I’d also recommend the Atomic Heritage Foundation’s oral history collection.

 Recently, I read a novel called The Golem of Brooklyn. There’s nothing about the Manhattan Project in the novel, but there’s a thematic connection. In a Jewish context, I’ve been thinking about the linkage between that book and the Jewish scientists working on the Manhattan Project. The story of the atomic bomb can be read as an example of Jews trying to forge something that would be a form of protection in a time of crisis, but also a technological construct that gets beyond our control. That’s always the fear with a golem, too – not to spoil anything, but that’s a tension in the book, asking: Who is in control?

That’s always the fear, I guess, of creating something motivated by fear, or rage, or whatever. At what point does it get outside your control? 

Sam at Rose Garden.Samuel: You can invite any three people to Shabbat dinner. Who are they, and why? 

Sam: One of them would be my grandfather, who passed away when I was in middle school. As my other grandparents have been getting older, I’ve been thinking about their lives, and family history. I want to ask them about things, but it’s hard sometimes. There are a lot of questions I have, and there are a lot of things about my grandfather that I wish I could hear firsthand. 

The next answer is a lot more lighthearted. I’ve been on a West Wing binge recently, so I think talking to Aaron Sorkin would be very cool. 

Then, my third guest would be Sam Kerr, who is my favorite soccer player. She’s injured right now, so maybe she would appreciate the pick-me-up of a Shabbat dinner. She is such a uniquely gifted and instinctual player that I would love to hear what’s going on in her head when she’s playing.

Samuel: Last one. Finish the sentence. When Jews of the DMV gather…

Sam: They’ll try to save the world, one way or another.

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