You should know… Jesse Vogel

Photo by David Stuck

Clean energy guy Jesse Vogel is looking for ways to finance projects that will reduce America’s carbon footprint. The 23-year-old Ohioan has found his niche in hyper-political Washington, for which he was prepared by his political and secular Jewish family.

Among Vogel’s mentors in disrupting the status quo was his grandfather Amos Vogel, who in 1947 founded Cinema 16, a New York film society that promoted independent works rather than the “hokum” of Hollywood. Amos Vogel’s iconoclasm was one of the building blocks in Jesse Vogel’s Jewish identity.

Right now you’re executive assistant at Tax Equity Advisors. That doesn’t exactly scream clean energy.

That’s true. It’s a boring name. There’s this problem in clean energy — that we need to build lots and lots of clean energy projects. And you need a lot of financing to do that. Right now there are just a few entities that do this kind of financing. What we do has to do with the tax credit — tax equity is an equity that’s incentivized by the federal tax credit.

So we’re talking about tax accounting, and we’re talking with CFOs of companies. There’s a lot of money sitting on the books of American corporations and we can put it to work in building a clean economy. We can help them figure out how to do it and take advantage of some significant financial benefits.

And what drew you to clean energy as a life calling?

In Ohio I went to Oberlin College and I got interested in politics. I had grown up in a political household and I was knocking on doors for Democratic candidates with my mother as a kid.  At the end of my time at Oberlin I had an experience here in D.C. working on international climate policy. So I was covering the international climate negotiations for the Center for American Progress, which I liked. I wanted to figure out what was the useful stuff that I could do more of. And these conversations came down to the question of money. Which is what brought me to the energy finance world.

You come from a long line of secular Jews.

I grew up in a Jewish suburb of Columbus, Ohio, where to be a Jew was to go to synagogue and be bar mitzvahed, and you probably went to Israel and you probably were part of some youth group. And my twin sister and I were never a part of that. My grandfather came out of the Holocaust and my grandmother came out of a long line of Jews in Queens. So that was Jewish to me. And it was connected to socialism and deeply political.

My grandfather came out of the politics of a life or death situation. He was born in ’21 in Vienna and left in ’38 when the Nazis came in. When he got married to my Grandma Marcia, the day of their wedding they dropped the bomb on Hiroshima. So Jewishness and politics were deeply combined. And the politics also had to do with distrust of any kind of institution. Of any people or place that thinks they know what’s right.  So that didn’t combine very well with the Jewishness of my childhood friends.

I think about growing up — at the [school] lunch table people are like, “You’re not really a Jew. You’re a redhead and your mother’s not Jewish. And you didn’t get bar mitzvahed.” I’m also gay. So all this is tied into thinking about queer identity.

I had this experience in the fall — I went to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with this group of queer people on Fire Island. It was one of these old gay resort communities …

More heritage.

Yeah, exactly. And I was helping set up. I was staying with the rabbi. (laughs) We had to set up a synagogue in this community center. Bringing the ark up from the basement. And somewhere in this moment this guy was, “You Jewish?” And he looked at me like, you’re a redhead. And I sort of stumbled and was brought back to this childhood thing of “I don’t know.” And later my friend said to me, “You could have said yes.”

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