Both Jewish and non-Jewish students munched on hamantaschen and rattled groggers while listening to the story of Esther from the Megillah.
A guest appearance by Gov. Tom Wolf brought more than 100 students from across campus to the Lubavitch House at the University of Pennsylvania on March 1 during Purim. The event began with a reading of the Megillah, followed by a schmoozing break, before Wolf arrived. He spoke about political engagement, and answered students’ questions about bipartisan cooperation and gerrymandering.
“Winston Churchill said, ‘Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others,’” Wolf said. “And the reason for that is because it’s encoded on each and every one of us to actually step forward, if we don’t like what we’re seeing — I’m not saying you do or you don’t — but it’s our responsibility to step forward.”
Rabbi Menachem Schmidt, founder and executive director of the Lubavitch House at the University of Pennsylvania, introduced Wolf. Schmidt said he met Wolf at a Jewish Business Network event and asked him to speak to the students. For Schmidt, having Wolf on campus fits into the Lubavitch House’s leadership programming, as he felt the governor embodied someone who was trying to make a difference.
“G-d puts us in a position where we can make a difference, in whatever form we’re in,” Schmidt said. “I’m not a Democrat or a Republican, but Tom Wolf is a very good example of someone who has attempted to do that, who has left the private sector. That is one of the messages that I shared with the students here.”
Wolf said he wanted to do more than just vote and donate, which was why he decided to step away from his private sector job — where he worked as a distributor of lumber and building products — and run for office. He urged students to get involved in politics as well.
“Let’s all resolve we’re going to do something,” Wolf said. “Take your interest and your passion and act on it, and we’re going to have a better society as a result.”
After speaking for a few minutes on this topic of political engagement, he took questions from students in the room.
The first questioner asked Wolf what he knows now that he wishes he knew when he was younger.
“Never take anything for granted,” Wolf said. “If you have something you want to say, say it. If you have something you want to do, do it.”
During the question-and-answer portion, Wolf said he is reluctant to use political labels, preferring to think of himself as a pragmatist. When he was in the private sector, he shared 20 to 30 percent of his net profit with employees, on top of compensation and benefits, because it made his company better, he said, rather than for personal gain. Similarly, Wolf said, the liberal ideas expressed by the Democratic Party are pragmatic as well, and this pragmatism has allowed him to reach across the aisle.
A question also addressed gerrymandering. Wolf had a part in the recent congressional redistricting by vetoing a map submitted by Republican leaders in the Senate.
“What I see is politicians choosing their voters, rather than voters choosing their politicians — the phrase that’s out there — and that makes me not really want to play this game,” Wolf said.
He compared gerrymandering to fixing a Phillies game: As a fan of the Phillies, he wants them to win, but he wants them to win a fair game.
The event ended with a question about the lack of bipartisanship in Washington, D.C., which Wolf connected back to the issue of gerrymandering.
“One of the problems with an unfair map is that we have seats that are so non-competitive in the general election, that the only competition is with the primary,” he said. “You look at who comes out in the primary election, they tend to be the extremes, extreme on both sides, Democrats and Republicans, so we end up with more of a tendency for people to just yell at each other.”