As a self-described “little forest gnome,” “Redwood kid,” and “raging hippie,” it’s likely a massive understatement to say that Sammy enjoys being among trees. Ever since she was little, she climbed them, named them, talked to them, befriended them, sought sanctuary in them. Even just discussing the power of the outdoors welled up such a palpable joy in her that I became joyous, too, and made immediate plans for my own forest bath.
Over Zoom, we talked about chasing magic, walking under the full moon, nature therapy, and Sammy’s outdoor mentorship project, Soul | Light. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jason: You mentioned being born and raised in the East Bay. Did you ever live somewhere else?
Sammy: I went to Pomona College, then I like to say I did the Jewish World Tour: I lived in Jaffa, Tel Aviv, then LA, then New York, and finally back here. Every time I came back to visit, it felt sticky, and I didn’t want to leave. So it felt like I got to choose home rather than being here by default.
What do you think was behind that choice of coming back?
I jokingly (…kind of not jokingly!) say that it was the flowers and plants and trees that called me back. But I think a deeper thing is that I’m very family-oriented. The same week I felt I might go back, my sister called me and told me she was pregnant! Cosmic timing.
It feels so good when the universe directs you and everything is finally, if momentarily, clear. On another note, were you always drawn to nature?
I’ve always been a person—I was gonna say “kid” and I think I’m still that kid—who yearns for magic. And spirituality, too. Growing up in the suburbs, that didn’t feel overtly accessible. There was a lot of uniformity and homogeneity and not much wildness. So I sought refuge and friendship with the fruit trees in our yard. I had names for our apricot and plum trees (Aper and Plumy), and would talk to them. I was a bit of a weirdo and eventually, I made a weirdo (human) best friend and we’d nerd out about plants and animals. Her mom took us on hikes to Briones Regional Park and we’d play at Mount Diablo. Those are the places I really grew up.
When did you start Soul | Light and what made it the right time?
Around 2016, I was working for a consulting company and I would go for a walk in the woods in the Berkeley hills, where I lived, to take a break. But then I would never come back to work. First I felt kind of guilty, like: “There goes my productivity.” Then I started to relax into the idea that the woods walking was its own type of meaningful engagement with the world. When I’m laying on a hillside or foraging or climbing a tree, I’m learning. I’m filled with motivation. I’m changing.
What happened next?
Being an Ashkenazi Jew with all kinds of ancestral inheritance, I started to get really interested in the anxiety-relief benefits of spending time in nature. I found that this core of anxiety I lived with would melt away. People introduced me to the concept of eco-therapy, and I started to get ideas.
One night, I was walking under a full moon feeling so poetic and awake and noticing all these amazing things that were different at nighttime, and I thought, “I want to do this with other people.” It would allow us to connect in a different way, beyond our regular or secular selves. Roaming around with a pack of people at nighttime is such an adventure and I think most adults don’t have enough of that. So, I started offering full moon walks and the [formerly in Temescal] Moishe House suggested I do it for Shabbat, and I led Shabbat forest baths, too.
How did you land on your current youth focus with Soul | Light’s outdoor mentorship?
It was personal—seventh grade was when shit started to hit the fan for me emotionally and psychologically as anxiety started creeping in and taking root. Soul | Light supports middle schoolers and high schoolers who meet for “group” once a week in nature to experience quiet, reflection, singing, sharing, movement, and crafts.
I’m trying to offer the kids the things they’re not getting in the public school curriculum but that are important to being a human being, like the ability to contact their emotions, curiosities, and thoughts with a little more spaciousness. The chance to share and be heard. We don’t correct each other’s way of experiencing the world. We just listen, and I think that’s really powerful.
What’s been coming up lately for you during your “group” time?
It’s been a gift to see how much the human-ness in these young people is not really any different from my own. This teenager recently shared how at certain points of her menstrual cycle, she gets so sad about not being partnered. And it’s like, “Dude, I totally relate!”
What is your Jewish life looking like these days?
I love Jews. I love being Jewish. I love Jewish community. I go to Shabbats that are hosted by friends. I camp with Milk + Honey at Burning Man. I’ve been a community member and a staff member at Wilderness Torah, which is totally my jam—being in nature with ritual and song and dance.
I recently found out about LUNAR Collective, an Asian-Jewish group, but I haven’t yet gone to an event. I’m a quarter Korean, which is largely invisible to most people meeting me. So I have this sense of being a little shy in Asian community or Asian Jewish community, even though I was so close to my Korean grandma and feel deeply influenced by that side of my ancestry. Maybe this is a good chance for me to break out of that.
Now, onto our in-house Proust Questionnaire. Tell me any poem, book, movie, play, or piece of media or song that you love!
CODA is a beautiful, heartwarming, sad, funny movie about this fishing family in New England who are all deaf except for the daughter—CODA stands for Child of a deaf adult. It made me think about the tension between loyalty to family and following your heart. Highly recommended.
What is the Bay’s best-kept secret?
The Bay itself! I realized recently that I interact with the actual water of the Bay so rarely, so I went on this seaweed foraging experience at César Chávez Park. It was so exciting to harvest delicious seaweed that you can bake into crispy edibles and use for hair treatments. I’m obsessed with César Chávez Park, particularly around sunset. It’s so languid and beautiful. I’ve seen these great blue herons down there and there are whole fields of fennel…
When was a recent time that you felt a spiritual connection?
I was running a Soul | Light group yesterday up in Redwood Regional and during the Sit Spot time, I crawled into a thicket that felt like it was beckoning me and immediately saw this beautiful cavern-like space under the branches. I was like, “This is where I can invite my ancestors,” which happens to me around fall. So I had this lovely moment of giving a lot of things to all my ancestors with all these little lichens around me.
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.