Even during our short time together, I loved hearing Josh’s succinct and sharp—yet kind-hearted—analysis of, well, anything. Intertwined with that perceptiveness, I learned, he has a mystical and soulful side, too. I spoke to Josh on Zoom about being lost and found at Burning Man, late-blooming spirituality, the wonders of non dual meditation, and the strange science of predicting the future. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jason: So, Josh! What brought you out to the Bay?
Josh: I always knew I wanted to live in the Bay. Then I got a job with GiveWell, an organization that tries to find effective charities to give to, and they moved from New York to the Bay. I also went to college in Southern California, so I wanted to stick around. It all came together nicely.
What forays have you made into the Jewish community here?
I went to Urban Adamah [an urban Jewish farm in West Berkeley] several times and really enjoyed that. Recently, I went to a Chochmat HaLev [a Renewal synagogue in South Berkeley] service and really loved it and decided I wanted to go into that more regularly. They have in-person services once a month but I was also excited about the HeartSpace meetup there for people in their 30s. That was fun and I quickly made some friends there. The reason I first showed up at Chochmat was that Zvika [Chochmat and HeartSpace’s Spiritual Leader] leads a camp at Burning Man.
Is Burning Man still a pretty wild scene?
Definitely very unusual. It still feels like visiting another planet. I decided to go five days before it started, very last second. It was a mix of great and lovely and awesome experiences and then also feeling a little lonely at the biggest EDM dance party ever. There are lots of different niches there and it can be disorienting to try to move between them all. But Zvika’s Milk + Honey camp was very comforting to wander into. They have a big Shabbat dinner that was a source of stability and good times.
It sounds like you were captivated by the services you attended back in Berkeley, too. What drew you in?
Chochmat is celebrating life in a way that I’ve always wanted people to be doing. I was raised Catholic—my mom’s Catholic and my dad’s Jewish. I never was very into Catholicism and got pretty into militant atheism at a certain point, then had my surprising spiritual turn. For a long time, I wished there was a place where we could come together once a week and talk about what’s meaningful in life. The Chochmat service has great music and super-fun dancing—people are just going for it. They’re definitely living in that hour and a half. I felt really at home, really present. And I like the way that Zvika leads—I don’t know the proper term for this—the sermon.
Me either! We can collectively research it after the interview! [Editor’s note: I did just that and the answer is…d’var Torah, meaning “a word of the Torah.”] On another note, tell me about this “forecasting tournament” you’re helping run.
I was at GiveWell for seven years, and then took a year off, just to do what I wanted. I did a lot of meditating and other things. For the last year and a half, I’ve been working with a professor named Phil Tetlock at the University of Pennsylvania. There’s a team of about six of us trying to develop useful forecasting tools to predict things like, “Will there be another global pandemic? What’s going to happen with AI in the next decade? With climate change? With nuclear war?” All sorts of big topics. We’re researching those tools and trying to apply them to policymaking. For me, it’s a sense-making project: What’s going on? And can I improve my understanding of the world?
So are you processing tons of data? How does it work?
Our team recently ran a tournament called the X-Risk Persuasion Tournament—the X is for Extinction. We weren’t doing the forecasts ourselves. We facilitated a competition where we invited about 100 people who did really well on previous tournaments and 100 subject-matter experts to compete. Some of the questions are about three years from now, some ten years, some 30 years or more.
Considering we are not in the future yet, how do you decide who wins the tournament? Is it about looking at their process and somehow assessing that, or how does it work?
Historically, you have to wait! That’s the gold standard. You put different probabilities on different things. If you say that something has a 1% chance of happening, and it happens, you get a really bad score. If you say it as 99%, you get a good score.
For these longer-run questions, we’ve been testing some clever ways of getting faster information. For example, we ask people to predict what other groups of people would predict. If you think that’s correlated with prediction in the long run, then it gives you information now.
Transitioning from thinking about far into the future to being deeply in the present, you mentioned meditating—what does that look like for you?
Meditation scratches an itch of having lots of wonder about the world, and really wanting to investigate it. I studied philosophy and economics in college and I see it partly as super-applied philosophy—investigating the nature and meaning of life through direct experience. There’s so much happening in every moment, if you make space for it. Part of why I started was that it helped with some anxiety, but the deeper I go into it, the more that it’s a fascinating, rewarding, cool exploration in its own right.
Do you use an app? Or do a self-guided thing?
I did my first five-day silent retreat in 2018. I’ve tried to consistently do one or two retreats a year since then. I view it a little bit like dosing. A ten-day retreat is a pretty intense psychedelic! The practice that resonated most with me is called non-dual meditation, which involves experientially recognizing that one is not as separate from the world as one might think. It’s partially a response to early Buddhism, which was more interested in achieving purity, nirvana, escaping the world, becoming like a monk in the woods. Non-dual meditation holds that the sacred and the mundane (or even profane) are not so distinct. All sorts of emotions can be part of the meditation.
Now, our in-house Proust Questionnaire to wrap up. Tell us a poem, book, movie, play, or piece of art or media that you love.
I love the musician Indigo De Souza. She just released a song called “Younger and Dumber” that I think is really beautiful. That was the last thing that gave me goosebumps as I was listening to it.
What’s the Bay’s best-kept secret?
It turns out that one of the best non-dual meditation teachers in the world, in my opinion, is based in Berkeley. His name is Michael Taft and he helps run the Berkeley Alembic. I think it’s pretty awesome! Great people, great activities.
What was a recent time you felt some kind of spiritual connection?
Just before the call, I was walking around Lake Merritt and enjoying the diverse neighborhood and feeling connected to people and the ducks hanging out.
If something in this piece inspires you to reach out to Josh, he’d be excited to hear from you and can be reached at jhrosenberg [at] gmail [dot] com.
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 email@example.com.