Part I: My name is Matthew Ray Culberson. I was given the name Matthew on the day I was born because...
Part II: Maybe because school had been filled with so much uncertainty and conflict, when I got to UC Davis, I gravitated...
I would be the first in my family to travel this far away from home for school. My family was nervous for me. My mom took it upon herself to book her own flight to visit Michigan on my recruitment weekend. She was pleased and confident about this big move for our lives after her visit.
Moving in the summer meant that I would get to do research in Dr. Melanie Sanford’s chemistry lab, working to develop novel transition metal catalyzed methods for the site-, chemo-, regio-, and stereoselective functionalization of C–H bonds in the context of complex organic molecules. It also meant that Kiara could get a summer job.
I had told the lab that I couldn’t work on Saturdays because I was a sabbath keeper and someone there must have figured I was Jewish, rather than Seventh Day Adventist (SDA). They connected Kiara with a job at the Ann Arbor Jewish Community Center’s Camp Raanana. She would come home from days working as a camp counselor and share the Jewish content she learned at camp.
It turned out Dr. Sanford was Jewish, as was Mark, one of the students there. When I joined her lab, Mark heard I didn’t work on Saturdays. He asked if I was Jewish. I wasn’t sure exactly how to answer.
No, my dad is … but I practice a form of Judaism … but I’m not Jewish.
“Ah, that’s okay if you’re not actually Jewish, at least there's another one of us around here.” I didn’t realize what that meant at the time, but I do now. He would tell me all these things about being Jewish and Melanie being Jewish. They would joke about their Hebrew day school experiences, and I thought it was awesome to have the connection between a professor and a student in that way.
During that time, I was still not comfortable in the Christian religion and church, but it had never occurred to me to pursue Judaism. I stopped telling people I was SDA and instead would say that I practiced a form of Judaism. Christianity didn’t make sense to me; church just never felt right. My entire life, for reasons I could neither articulate nor ignore, I felt different from those around me.
There were Jew-ish things about me that, for better or worse, I didn’t even know were cultural (or stereotypical). I was a jokester — often the class clown. Yet just as often the smartest kid in class. I loved math. Once I picked up a book, I couldn’t put it down. I loved to ask questions about life and was never satisfied by someone’s first answer. Instead, any gray area was an invitation to research and debate.
On a darker note, I knew the experience of so many Jews who were the targets of hate that had nothing to do with their actions or their character. And yet I felt compelled to understand and extend respect even to those who mistreated me.
Adults told me that I was an old soul. I worried for the world. Whenever I did something that was forbidden by the Bible, it immediately pricked my conscience. I loved to wear hats — the familiar, comforting feel of something covering my head — and I hated that church wouldn’t allow it.
I always felt deep down inside that I was destined for greatness, but I didn’t know what or how or why. My mom encouraged me. She never missed an opportunity to remind me:
Your name in Hebrew means a gift from G-d.
As summer turned to fall in Ann Arbor, the continued encounters I had with Jewish life started to seem like more than coincidence. Our apartment was filled with gifts that the Israeli camp counselors had given Kiara. The Jewish artwork, plaques and imagery around campus seemed to leap out to me. Once I was out walking, lost in thought, and stopped in my tracks only to look up and see a Jewish cemetery. Another time, Kiara was overcome by sadness and reduced to tears but couldn't understand why. Days later, we realized she had been standing in the shadow of a statue dedicated to those lost in the Holocaust.
Then, on an otherwise forgettable day in February 2020, I asked her to pick me up after class and offered to meet her on the edge of campus to avoid traffic. I got to the spot, sat down on some cold bricks near the law school and waited, staring at my feet.
When I looked behind me, I saw a sign (and actual, electric sign) that read “Good Sabbath.” I was instantly curious — what did this building that looked like a house and had a 7-pointed object in front know about sabbath?
As I write this, I am mourning the loss of my young brother Justin. It breaks my heart to think of his life's journey cut short and I can only hope to honor and sanctify his with my own. May your memory be for a blessing, Justin.