Matthew Kolbert, class of 2017
Hometown: Glen Cove, Long Island, NY
What’s your major?
I am a double major in Jewish studies and science, technology, and society.
I came to Vassar having no idea what I wanted to major in but decided on STS late in my freshman year. Since I had attended Hebrew School through high school, I decided to take Hebrew for my language requirement. My beginning Hebrew class had only 10 students, and the advanced Hebrew class I took last semester had only five, and that’s a really good way to learn a language. I was taking a Jewish lit course for fun last semester, and I really enjoyed it, so I decided I might as well take the remaining courses I need for my Jewish studies major.
During my freshman year, because I was thinking about majoring in STS, I took earth science prof Jill Schneiderman’s course that included a trip to Israel to study water supply issues there. During that trip, I really became educated on Israeli water policies that were harming the Palestinians. We saw Palestinian farms that didn’t have enough water situated near Jewish settlements where the houses had swimming pools. Growing up, I never thought much about the politics of Israel; that trip really ignited my interest.
What activities are you involved in outside of academics?
I sang in an a cappella group, Broadway and More (BAM). I joined Vassar’s J Street chapter shortly after it was formed, and I’m currently co-president. On the nationwide spectrum, J Street is considered kind of left of center, but it’s the only pro-Israel group on campus – we favor a two-state solution. I’m also chair of the social action committee of Vassar Jewish Union. I went on a Birthright trip to Israel over Winter Break, and it was a great experience. Practicing Judaism is a big part of my life on campus.
How did you learn about Vassar?
There are some high schools on Long Island where a lot of the students go on to Ivy League schools and other prestigious colleges. Mine wasn’t one of them. But I knew I wanted to go to a small liberal arts school with a low student-faculty ratio. I knew about Vassar’s reputation as a top school that offered more financial aid than many other colleges, and that was an important consideration for my family. I applied early decision and was accepted.
What are your favorite courses in each of your majors?
I took a course called “Jewish Textuality: Space and Place” last year that I really enjoyed. In STS, my favorite so far is definitely “Bioethics and Human Reproduction” with Nancy Pokrywka. I really love learning about technology and all of the amazing things that we can do with it, but it is really easy to forget the many consequences that come along with rapidly expanding technological innovation. This class explored that in the context of human reproduction by having us look at technologies and practices like surrogacy and in vitro fertilization, and how they fit into our lives in terms of law, philosophy, and social justice.
What are you hoping to do when you graduate?
I know I want to continue to be involved in Jewish political issues after I leave Vassar, but exactly how is unclear. I haven’t ruled out rabbinical school. Being a rabbi is advantageous in many ways, even if I don’t have a congregation. But really, I have no specific plans yet.
What is the value of a liberal arts education?
A liberal arts education is incredibly valuable because it gives you the breathing room to explore new and exciting things, while still instilling in you important skills that you can take with you into the real world. My Vassar experience extends far beyond the classroom. In my first year alone, I gained a whole new vocabulary to describe things like racism and sexism, which I had witnessed and known about plenty coming from my high school. The culture of Vassar forces you to confront and grapple with injustice, not just in the world at large but also in our own pasts and on our campus.
Vassar has helped me grow as an activist, starting with my trip to Israel and the West Bank, where I saw both the cultural beauty and importance of Israel, but also the deeply disturbing injustices that were occurring just a few miles outside of those places. I shifted really rapidly from being a passive observer of the occupation to someone who felt a deep need to do something about it. And while these experiences occurred outside of the classroom, they weren’t isolated from it. The tools I received in classes about social justice and water politics enabled me to analyze those experiences more fully. And those experiences contributed in turn to my understanding of those concepts.