Mutual respect and the ability to see beyond people's differences are values "central to what this world needs," declared University of Pennsylvania president Amy Gutmann last week at the Pyramid Club, 53 stories above Center City. She emphasized that anything and everything that could be done to further those values was good for Philadelphia.
Gutmann's remarks came after being awarded the Distinguished Community Leadership Award by Operation Understanding. The annual honor is given to Jewish and African-American figures of note in the local community. Pamela Browner Crawley, Citizens Bank senior vice president and director of corporate affairs, also got an award.
Gutmann praised Operation Understanding's mission of furthering mutual respect between the races. "Making swords into plowshares is what O.U. grads are able to do," she said. "It is not only a courageous effort, but the best effort of a lifetime."
Currently in its 23rd year, Operation Understanding is a leadership program targeted at Jewish and African-American students. Each year, 12 to 16 high school juniors, divided evenly by race, are selected to travel together to Israel and Senegal, a trip that "enables students to draw parallels between what they see abroad, and the experiences of African-Americans and Jewish Americans," said executive director Barbara Mattleman.
While Gutmann and Crawley were the official honorees, the recipients made it clear that the group's members in attendance were the real stars of the event.
"This evening is really honoring the young men and women of a much more brilliant generation than mine," said Gutmann.
Many attendees were alumni of the program, including Raffi Greenberg, a senior at Masterman High School and a member of last year's group.
In brief remarks, Greenberg spoke about how his time traveling had opened his eyes to the world, including an experience in which he attempted to briefly summarize Judaism and Jewish history for a Senegalese student. He also spoke highly of the trip to Israel -- a first for him. He said that his time in Israel made him identify much more strongly as a Jew, and he plans to take courses in Yiddish when he attends Yale University this fall.
Greenberg summarized Operation Understanding by saying the program "provides the vehicle required to bridge gaps between different cultures in a diverse community."
The evening also served as a fundraiser, generating more than half the group's annual budget, according to Seth Shapiro, co-president of the board of directors and a 1988 program alum.
When the 2008 group departs July 1, Carver High School junior Megan Singer will be one of the dozen travelers. Singer is the only Jewish student at her school. That and the fact that she has two adopted cousins from Ethiopia punched the diversity ticket for Singer's inclusion.
"I'm not sure what to expect," Singer said of her upcoming travels, "but I think whatever my expectations are, they'll be met -- and then some."