• Name: Laura Matthews
  • Family: Married to Kyle Matthews; children Elan (5) and Talia (2)
  • Occupation: Hillel program coordinator at SUNY Geneseo
  • Focus at Federation: PJ Library, Babyccino, Ramim 4


What did “being Jewish” mean to you while growing up?


“I grew up in Schenectady. My grandparents, who survived the Holocaust, lived a couple of blocks away. My parents chose to live and raise our family in the city itself; all the other Jewish kids lived in Niskayuna, the Jewish suburb. My brothers and I were the only Jewish kids in our school; we were the only ‘city’ kids in our Sunday school. After my Bat Mitzvah I continued my Jewish education, and that’s when things got interesting. The curriculum shifted to become more inquisitive, in-depth, and thought-provoking. I went to Hobart and William Smith Colleges and became involved with Hillel there, having Shabbat dinners in a homey environment. The experience stuck with me subconsciously. I worked in New York City for a couple of years, in human resources. In 2007 I met my husband at a wedding in Kansas. He wasn’t an observant Christian; when he told his mother he was converting to Judaism, she said, ‘from what?’ Judaism is a good fit for him – being an academic, he’s all about the text. He’s the one who says, ‘We should go to Torah study!’”


How have Jewish values guided your life and career?


“After we married in 2010, Kyle got a position teaching Spanish literature at SUNY Geneseo. We lived in Geneseo for a couple of years, which was a nice place to have tiny kids and ‘mom brain’; I never lost my car keys because I could just leave them in the car! We decided to move to Rochester to be closer to Jewish community life, including PJ Library events and Tot Shabbats. Our decision to live in the city of Rochester—just as my parents chose to live in Schenectady—is living our Jewish values. Elan attends Kindergarten at School 52, which has a lot of racial and socioeconomic diversity. It’s important to us to give the kids that exposure, especially because my husband speaks to the kids only in Spanish. When we were living in Geneseo, they thought that was Kyle’s own personal language! We want the kids to realize that yes, our backyard is little; but that means we go to the public playground, and it means our best friends are walking distance from our house. Our neighborhood is full of young families making this choice, who share our value system. At the same time, I wanted to remain involved in campus life at Geneseo. In 2015 when Talia was one month old, I spotted the posting for the program coordinator job at Hillel; I applied and was told they had just filled the position. I was devastated for a few months. My best friend said, ‘The silver lining is, you know what your dream job is.’ By the next summer, the position had opened up.”


How does your career connect with your volunteer work and family life?


“I try to make connections for my students between our program and Federation, so they know Jewish life doesn’t begin and end with Hillel at Geneseo; and so they can explore their options when they graduate. My predecessor in this position advised me to have a specific Facebook account for this job, separate from my ‘other’ Facebook life. I understand that choice; but for me, that’s the antithesis of this job. It’s important for the community in Rochester to see my job at Hillel; and for my students to see me juggling family life, work and Judaism. Kyle and my kids often attend our student-led Shabbat.


Because Geneseo is a teaching college, I brought to my office a selection of PJ Library books, to remind my students there are Jewish teaching opportunities – such as Sunday school – in the future. For the Ramim trip in October, my goal is to be transparent with the college students about my apprehensions and concerns; because I know when they go on Birthright trips, it can be an emotional deep dive.”


Can you share something interesting about yourself?


“Because Kyle spoke Spanish with the kids from the start, the first phrase I learned was ‘please stop crying.’ We spent two months in Mexico last year with the kids. My husband worked on turning his dissertation into a book; I took Spanish classes; and Elan got to attend school!”


-Melissa Pheterson