Penn State Student Apologizes for Controversial Photo and Works With Rabbi to Make Amends

Ryan Milligan regrets the high school photo that upended her life. | Photo by Ryan Milligan

This article has been updated. 

Ryann Milligan, 21, was at the center of an anti-Semitism controversy in June that threatened to irreparably damage her life: A photo of her from high school resurfaced — one that showed her smiling with friends, a swastika drawn prominently in marker on her shoulder.

With help from Rabbi Gregory Marx of Congregation Beth Or in Ambler, she’s trying to make amends.

“I have felt nothing but remorse about this photo and its being published,” Milligan wrote in an apology letter, at the conclusion of her studies with Marx. “This photo does not express who I am. I do not endorse and have never intended to express hatred or anti-Semitism. I wish the symbol was never drawn on my shoulder, and I deeply regret that the photo was taken.”

Soon after they met, Marx said, it became apparent that Milligan “is not a hate monger, not a neo-Nazi. She was rather a young, 15- or 16-year-old girl who, with some friends, did some stupid things.” Milligan, he said, has taken responsibility for her actions, which convinced him of her sincerity.

“She owns it,” he said. “She’s not dancing around.”

The two met via Zoom at the beginning of July.

In June, a former friend of Milligan’s started an “exposure list,” as Milligan called it, posting pictures of her high school classmates in which they displayed racist or hateful symbols. The photo of Milligan, with two other friends, drew intense scrutiny on social media. In quick succession, she lost her position with THON, Penn State’s vaunted dance-a-thon, and an internship. She was inundated with messages and emails across every social platform, many of them calling on Penn State to expel her. Some messages included threats on her life; one person posted her home address on Twitter. She was scared.

“I didn’t know what was going to happen,” said Milligan, who lives in Philadelphia.
What she did know was what she had to do next: make it right.

Acting on the advice of two Jewish students at Penn State, Milligan connected with Marx through state Sen. Daylin Leach. When Leach heard about Milligan’s desire to make things right with the Jewish community, Marx came to mind. Marx’s daughter had previously interned and worked for Leach, and the two men had struck up a friendship. Leach knew that Marx was “compassionate, empathetic and would be the perfect fit,” he said.

Marx and Milligan were introduced via email, and the two set a schedule for two Zoom discussions. Together, they talked about the history of the swastika, anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and forgiveness.

Marx showed her a “pyramid of hate.” The base was constructed with biases and prejudices; at the tip of the pyramid, genocide. Marx described to her how the steady accumulation of hatred led to something like the Holocaust.

It was clear, Marx said, that Holocaust education had never been made a focus of Milligan’s academic life.

To further make his point, Marx recommended that Milligan read the Holocaust classic “Night” by Elie Wiesel. The details of Wiesel’s book were shocking, Milligan said. “I’ve never really read a book like that.”

At the conclusion of the two discussions, Milligan resolved to write an apology, to be disseminated among the Jewish community.

“Please know that I am not a fascist, or a hater of anyone, nor do I support hate,” her apology reads. “Images of hatred, like swastikas, do not reflect who I am. I am sincerely sorry for the hurt this photo has caused to people, and the unintended consequence of spreading hate and fear especially during these difficult times. Please find it in your hearts to accept my heartfelt apology.”

In an interview, Milligan added that she learned “that people are filled with hate, and that because someone did a wrong, they think that by giving another person more hate, it would make the thing better. That’s not how we can fix the world.”

Marx is proud of the work that Milligan has done, and hopes to see her continue to educate herself and others.

“If we don’t give this girl an opportunity to redeem herself, then she really would become a hate-filled person, because the Jewish community would’ve literally helped undermine her prospects,” he said.

UPDATE: The Greater Philadelphia chapter of the Zionist Organization of America has called repeatedly on Milligan’s alma mater, John W. Hallahan Catholic Girls High School, to “to issue a public statement condemning Jew-hatred.” 

“Education of young Americans is extremely important and it seems like Hallahan is doing everything correctly to combat hatred and prejudice,” the statement reads, referring to the school’s recent statement condemning the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer. “This is all the more reason to publicly condemn specifically Jew-hatred because clearly sometimes well-intended educational programs sometimes miss their mark on some individuals.” 

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