When I first see him on the screen, Ben is standing at his desk. He tries to do so every 20 minutes because he’s taking care of his body these days. Which is saying a lot, since about a decade ago, he felt so removed from what he was doing, he felt disembodied. When he was aware of his body, it was often in pain from trying to live up to traditional masculine ideals. But over the last eight years, after an epiphany and course-correction, Ben has come back to himself, and he’s got the wisdom to show for it.
On Zoom, we discussed having many careers, the dangers and possibilities of modern masculinity, what makes a workplace sacred, and the time he almost became a rabbi. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jason: What brought you to the Bay?
Ben: I originally came for work eight years ago. My first career was in tech, working for big companies like Intuit and Facebook. My friends were going into banking or finance in New York, so tech felt like a hidden option that sounded way more fun and still equally prestigious, which was a big part of my thinking at that age. I arrived and fell in love with the Bay.
First career! Are you on your second now?
I’m actually on my fourth [laughs]. The first was classic tech, then I went to Israel with the intention of becoming a rabbi. I studied Torah every day through the year-long Pardes program, which was amazing. When I came back, I did a stint with startups, so that was my third career, and then I co-founded a community building and education organization for men called Kinhood. It’s been a journey.
Is becoming a rabbi still a dream or did you detour from that?
I loved the study and practice of my Jewish heritage—the music, the prayers, the texts. Then I realized I could do all my favorite things I thought I would do as a rabbi without becoming one. I can still study text and hold space for spiritual significance. I can still learn about the history. I can still learn Hebrew.
A rabbi deconstructed…nice. So tell me about the road to Kinhood.
When I was younger, I found myself in high concentrations of contemporary Western masculinity. Back in high school, I played a lot of sports and had a gnarly hip injury. The doctors told me it would be dangerous to keep playing, but when I relayed that to my football coach, he told me to just play through it. So I kept playing, sometimes in such pain that I would cry. Being out there made the injury worse, and in the decade since that injury, the tension grew out of my hip and into the rest of my body.
During college, I was very invested in fraternity life and became a pledge master, which is when I developed gut issues from all the drinking and glorification of alcohol abuse. After school, I had these ideas of masculinity around being a provider that led me to career choices where I didn’t fit; I spent a lot of time in corporate spaces where I felt disassociated and even disembodied. No matter what I did with my diet or exercise or stretching, there was discomfort that I was holding in my mind and body just because I felt like I was living somebody else’s life.
I moved into a co-op called Ubuntu in 2005, which felt like the San Francisco version of a fraternity but with an opposite cultural perspective, plus a co-ed make-up. That led me to question and investigate my life. When I looked back at all the decisions I’d made, I came to the conclusion that a lot of it had to do with what I thought it meant to be a man.
I started looking around for male role models and wasn’t seeing any that were exciting to me. It felt like nobody besides people like Jordan Peterson had ideas about how to show up in this time when what it means to be a man is so confusing.
In that void grew the idea for Kinhood. My co-founders and I have been working to create a subculture that feels more caring, healthy, and dynamic than older ideals of masculinity. And on a personal level, I’ve made more decisions over the years that felt like they were my own life. I always feel better when I do.
Welcome back. So what does Kinhood’s work entail, exactly?
We create containers—spaces and events—where men show up, often in their 20s, 30s, and 40s. Our mission is to generate a sense of trust, and create a subculture of new norms around how much vulnerability and intimacy is allowed and encouraged between men. Ultimately, we’re trying to build right relationship to our community, our loved ones, and ourselves.
There’s a metaphor we use for our work that comes from adrienne maree brown—one of Kinhood’s biggest influences—and her book, Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. When Hurricane Katrina came to New Orleans, it eliminated many local trees and plants but there was a well-known system of old oak trees that survived. Everyone was like: how did that happen? It turned out those trees were all connected at the root level; they had a support system that allowed them to be more resilient through the hurricane.
I love a good tree metaphor. I know that in some tree networks, older, stronger trees will send sugar to a tree that’s struggling, which is kind of amazing.
At our retreats, after we build trust, there’s a time for emotional sharing. When people are being witnessed by each other, they’re creating those strong, resilient roots with each other. There have been jarring statistics about the percentage of men who don’t have anybody in their life who they considered themselves close to. But when our community members go out into the world and face difficult things or are knocked off balance, we have those powerful connections to hold us steady.
I know you’ve been involved with [the spiritual community and synagogue] Chochmat HaLev. What’s that been like?
I’m drawn to the intersection of Judaism and meditation, which was the basis for Chochmat. And I feel camaraderie with the community members, many of whom are a couple generations older than me and who’ve also chosen alternative paths or are seeking healing. I’m on the board, which is basically like being an extra-committed volunteer. I’m learning how things go, taking notes, and bringing my millennial-ness to the synagogue. This fall, I’ll be running a pilot program for a sacred co-working space at Chochmat called Open Lev!
How do you make a workspace more sacred?
With the Great Resignation and the current economy, companies are trying to help employees feel more meaning and belonging in their work. But companies are invested in your belonging and your meaning-making only as much as it moves their bottom line. When the economy takes a hit, the first teams let go are the ones that have to do with that.
The question is: who should do it? I did a fellowship last year with the Jim Joseph Foundation called SynagogueX and my project was about the future of work, so I have a few ideas! Maybe that role should be entrusted to communities that have been focusing on creating meaning and belonging for millennia…One idea is having a rabbi in a workspace; somebody who’s there to weave community and look out for people.
Another is to follow a prayer cycle—setting intentions in the morning, taking a break for lunch, going for a walk to a local garden, and then checking in at day’s end. So you don’t feel like you just gazed into a screen all day and then nothing came of it.
Onto our in-house Proust Questionnaire. Tell me any poem, book, movie, play, piece of media, or song that you love!
The song “Away from the Mire” by Billy Strings, a contemporary folk artist, has helped me in many dark moments of my life; it’s an anthem for finding empowerment in the repetitive quality that life can sometimes have.
What’s the Bay’s best-kept secret?
Access to the redwoods in Joaquin Miller. A redwood forest is just ten minutes away from a large swath of East Bay residents. Although it’s not a secret, I think it’s underutilized. I’m always amazed when I go and there’s just a handful of cars.
When’s the last time you felt a spiritual connection?
We recently held a retreat for Kinhood with 20 young men. During the process of deep, emotional sharing, there’s an empathic side of me that comes out that doesn’t have an opportunity to emerge during my everyday routine. Having several days set aside for deepening and connection and vulnerability allows for this opening to happen where someone will start speaking, and before they even get into the content, I’ll start bawling. When they tell their story, I go somewhere else in those moments. It can be difficult and sometimes there’s grief, but I find it cathartic.
GatherBay Profiles is our interview series spotlighting the vast array of community members doing rad things! Released twice per month, the series aspires to celebrate GatherBay’s greatest treasure—the people around us. Want to be profiled? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.