Addressing members of the University of Pennsylvania community in Houston Hall, Rabbi David Wolpe shared what struck him from the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” his favorite writing by Martin Luther King Jr. He noted that King begins by saying he doesn’t usually respond to his critics, which Wolpe finds wise because people get caught up telling others why they’re wrong about us. But he added that King still wrote the letter “because the people who were criticizing him were people that he thought could hear.”
Wolpe was in conversation with actor, writer, and director Jonah Platt as part of the recent MLK Interfaith Commemoration. As a Jewish advocate, Platt said, he tries to reach the people he feels are reachable and “simply don’t know what they don’t know.” Both are Penn alumni, and Wolpe became friends with Platt’s parents in college.
Platt said King “faced those who would hate him with dignity and self-respect, with head held high,” adding that “it’s such an important lesson of Dr. King’s that if you want others to respect you, you must first respect yourself.” In talking about Jewish hatred and about racism against Black people, Wolpe said the people who engage in hatred “hate minorities of all kinds, so I just think it’s enormously important for all of us to insist not that we’re the same but on the dignity of our differences.”
Moderating their conversation was William Gipson, special advisor to the vice president for social equity and community, who built the MLK Interfaith Commemoration in 1996 when he was serving as university chaplain. The Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Symposium Committee, Office of the Chaplain, and Office of the President hosted the event.
“The conversation tonight honors an important part of Dr. King’s legacy, and that is allyship,” said Interim President J. Larry Jameson. He said Jewish leaders stood by King’s side at the March on Washington and at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and “now it is time for allyship again. We serve a common purpose and the weight of addressing antisemitism shouldn’t fall entirely on the shoulders of the Jewish people. All of us should join in fighting antisemitism and address it as a community.”
The interfaith commemoration also included the presentation of Community Involvement Awards to Regina Bynum, director of teaching and learning at the Netter Center for Community Partnerships; Akhenaton Mikell, founder of the nonprofit Imani Star Development; Sonja Ogden, a Department of Neurology employee who sits on several committees involved in diversity, equity, and inclusion; Talayah Johnson, a bioengineering Ph.D. student; and Om Manghani, a master’s student in the Graduate School of Education and December graduate of the College.
“One thing that I have found over the years is that during times of fear and hate, there have always been individuals who help bring us back to our better selves, with a courageous love. And this is no small thing, especially when one is among those who are receiving that hate,” said Charles “Chaz” Howard, vice president for social equity and community and University chaplain.
Wolpe recalled that after the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, media personality Van Jones called and said he wanted to put together a service for Black and Jewish people, and that preacher T.D. Jakes prayed for the Jewish community.
“I don’t think that I’ve ever had tears in my eyes for someone else’s prayers for me in my life, but I did, and it was so powerful,” Wolpe said. He added that he has learned that “the blessing doesn’t come from you, it comes through you, [and] anybody can bless anybody.”