During the festivities for the 77th Annual Academy Awards in February 2005, among the A-list celebrities including actors, actresses, directors, producers and other nominees, sat an unassuming, yet wise and determined, woman in a wheelchair. While not a household name, she was one of the stars of the evening, and even the celebrities knew it. At one point, actor Warren Beatty approached her and introduced himself. She replied with a polite introduction of her own, then promptly asked him, "What do you do?"
This spirited woman was Sister Rose Thering, founder of Seton Hall's Sister Rose Thering Fund for Education in Jewish-Christian Studies and the subject of the Oscar-nominated documentary short Sister Rose's Passion. The film, which will be screened for the campus community on October 3 from 5 to 6:30 p.m. in Jubilee Hall Auditorium, chronicles Sister Rose's lifelong dedication to reconciling Jews and Christians through education on the evils of anti-Semitism. Since its release, its poignancy has impacted viewers far and wide and continues to effect positive change in the way the Jewish community is received.
But how did the film come to be? What led to its creation? According to director Oren Jacoby, who has produced and directed films for Netflix, the BBC, HBO, ABC, PBS, National Geographic and the Discovery Channel, Sister Rose's Passion stemmed from the passion of the local community.
In the early 2000's, a group of staunch Sister Rose supporters connected to the University in various ways realized the significance of the work Sister Rose was doing and felt strongly that her story should be told to a national audience. Led by Risa Goldstein, a South Orange resident whose father had taken classes in the University's graduate program in Jewish-Christian Studies, they banded together and teamed up with an accomplished producer named Peter LeDonne and a successful New Jersey businessman named Steve Kalafer, a friend of Goldstein's. The pair had been making documentaries for years and had friendships within the South Orange community, so when they were approached about Sister Rose, they accepted. Soon after, they set about raising money to fund the documentary. Many of Sister Rose's supporters, including David and Sylvia Steiner, made donations that added up over time. With the producers on board and the funding in hand, what they needed next was a director.
As Jacoby recounts, "They came to me and asked if I'd be interested in working on it. I asked what the story was about, and they told me it was about an 84-year-old Catholic nun who had spent her career fighting anti-Semitism. This was back in 2003, and so I had thought anti-Semitism wasn't an issue anymore. I said, 'Is this something people will care about? Is there an audience for it these days?' They knew I was skeptical, and they encouraged me to meet Sister Rose for myself, knowing that it would change my mind."
"We are all, indeed, children of God, and this is something that needs to be lived every day, every moment.” -- Sister Rose Thering
"I attended an event supporting the Jewish community, and she was there. And I was just blown away. She was a remarkable woman. She had charisma and a sense of humor, and she was grounded. She was a people person who knew how to cut right through to what mattered in any interaction. After learning more about the work she and her community were doing, I began to realize what an issue anti-Semitism still was and that it’s connected to all different kinds of hatred. And that’s something Rose understood."
With a strong group of collaborators, including line producer Elgin Smith; cinematographers Slawomir Grunberg, Tom Hurwitz and Claudia Raschke-Robinson; and editor Melissa Hacker, Jacoby went to work on Sister Rose's Passion. Filmed primarily in New Jersey and Wisconsin, Sister Rose's home state, the documentary featured Sister Rose going about her daily activities: speaking about the Holocaust to a group of middle school students, visiting her convent in Racine, praying in Seton Hall's Chapel of the Immaculate Conception, and attending a board meeting of the Sister Rose Thering Fund. She and others were interviewed about the roots of anti-Semitism and how even today the crusade against it is far from over. "If we love Jesus, who was Jewish, why don’t we love His people?" she inquired. "We are all, indeed, children of God, and this is something that needs to be lived every day, every moment."
Actor Warren Beatty introduces himself to Sister Rose during the festivities for the 77th Annual Academy Awards.
Sister Rose's Passion premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival, where it was named Best Documentary Short Film. It earned an Oscar nomination shortly thereafter. The film opened theatrically in New York and Los Angeles, had its television debut on HBO Cinemax and is now available for streaming on iTunes or on DVD from Netflix.
"People were very moved by it and very shocked to learn that anti-Semitism was still an issue that needed to be addressed," said Jacoby. In fact, a viewing of the film inspired Leon G. Cooperman, founder and chairman of Omega Advisors in New York City, to offer a generous gift of $1.75 million to fund a faculty chair in Seton Hall's Jewish-Christian Studies program, which ultimately resulted in the Sister Rose Thering Fund. "I was very touched by the sincerity and significance of Sister Rose’s work, as described in the film," Cooperman explained. "I wanted to help her make the world a better, more tolerant place, so I just stepped forward after the film was over, shook her hand and extended an offer to help financially." Today the Fund, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary, aims to advance Sister Rose's legacy by fostering understanding and cooperation among Jews, Christians and people of other religious traditions through advocacy and education.
The Fund holds an annual essay contest based on the film, thanks to Massachusetts native David Ganz, who purchased copies of the film for distribution to all New Jersey public schools, and board member Paul Winkler, who distributed them on behalf of the New Jersey Holocaust Commission. Each year, middle and high school students throughout the state are asked to view the film and answer the question "How does Sister Rose, as portrayed in the film, inspire you to pursue social justice in your own experience?" Winners are invited for an awards ceremony, during which they read their essays, which the Fund then publishes in an annual book.
"Sister Rose showed us that you can be critical of something, but also be constructive and try to make it better. You can be a constructive activist for change."-- Oren Jacoby
Additionally, each year the Anti-Defamation League purchases copies of the film, which they distribute during their special education seminar so that it can be used as a teaching tool around the country.
"Sister Rose showed us that you can be critical of something, but also be constructive and try to make it better. You can be a constructive activist for change," said Jacoby. "She was a straight shooter, and she cared about one issue that she kept on fighting for and never forgot about. And that’s what you have to do if you’re really going to change something."
Director Oren Jacoby considered Sister Rose "an amazing colleague to work with."
"She was an amazing colleague for me to work with. The spirit she brought to her work, she brought to our film. I’ve never had a better subject for any of the films I’ve made. The film captures her spirit and keeps it going. It’s a way to keep her legacy alive."
And, indeed, the legacy of a community that was just as passionate in their mission as she was.