Photo © Diana Mara Henry/www.dianamarahenry.com
The Board meeting was called to order. Members of Seton Hall's Sister Rose Thering Endowment were gathered around the table, each giving their reports. One such member, Paul Gibbons, had come to the meeting with a student textbook published by his company. He had intended to show the group how the teachings in publications like these had improved in the wake of a milestone Vatican II document mandating the favorable treatment of Jews. Luna Kaufman, then the chairwoman of the Board, expressed her appreciation of the new inclusive tone in such materials.
Suddenly, the co-founder and eponym of the Endowment spoke up commandingly. "I'm sorry, Luna. You may be our chairwoman, but..." Sister Rose then proceeded to address the group about how the revised publications were not nearly enough. Much more needed to be done to halt the age-old practice of anti-Semitism in school and Church teachings. Though temporarily speechless, her fellow Board members were not surprised. This moment perfectly encapsulated who Sister Rose was: a passionate, determined upstander who would stop at nothing to achieve her mission of eradicating anti-Semitism. It was a mission that stemmed from her early childhood days back in Plain, Wisconsin.
Sister Rose (right, pictured with past Sister Rose Thering Endowment chairwoman Luna Kaufman) led a total of 54 tours to Israel.
Growing up in the 20s and 30s, Sister Rose was sensitive to the anti-Semitism around her. It was implied in her father's comments about the town's Jewish pharmacist. She read it in her Catholic schoolbooks. "They didn't tell me all of the truths, for example, that God is good and we are all His children," she said. School, home and popular culture repeated the widely held belief that the Jews killed Jesus, despite the fact that this contradicted the Church's teaching that all sinners bear responsibility for Jesus' death. And just a few years after entering religious life as a nun of the Dominican order, she saw it culminate in the murder of millions of Jews in Christian Europe.
The dangers of Christian anti-Semitism became too real to ignore. "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." Thus, in 1957 she began her doctoral studies at Saint Louis University. In her doctoral research she examined the most widely used Catholic teaching materials, observing how they taught about other faith, ethnic and racial groups – with a particular focus on Jews and Judaism. A basic summary of the self-study was taken to Vatican II and was ultimately used to help shape its landmark document Nostra Aetate: Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions, which was passed in 1965. In a single, emphatic declaration, the Church condemned anti-Semitism and restated its teaching that Jews are not to blame for the death of Jesus. It affirmed the Jews' special bond with God and called for mutual study, brotherhood and dialogue between the faiths.
"If anyone tells you that your church teaches that the Jews killed Jesus, you tell them, 'Not anymore.'" - Sister Rose Thering
For Sister Rose, this was an important step, but it certainly did not mean her work was complete. Empowered by a new era of openness and ever driven by her lifelong mission, she set out to teach about Catholic beliefs, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust. In 1968, she became coordinator of events for Seton Hall's Institute of Judaeo-Christian Studies, and five years later, she joined the University's education faculty. Realizing the importance of moving beyond the classroom, in 1974 she led her first of 54 tours to Israel. In 1982, New Jersey Governor Thomas Kean appointed Sister Rose to an advisory council on Holocaust education, further broadening her reach and influence. Over the course of five decades, she continued her research, sat on numerous committees and spoke out on many issues, including support for Israel and oppressed Jews in the Soviet Union. She was also a tireless activist, even joining a 1986 protest in Vienna against the inauguration of Austrian President Kurt Waldheim, a suspected Nazi war criminal.
In 1993, she co-founded the Sister Rose Thering Endowment for Jewish-Christian Studies at Seton Hall. Twenty-five years later, while the name has changed – it is now the Sister Rose Thering Fund for Education in Jewish-Christian Studies – its mission has remained steadfast: 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 has offered scholarships to well over 400 teachers who have taken the knowledge they have gained through Seton Hall's Jewish-Christian Studies program back to their own classrooms, where they have had an impact in reducing prejudice among their thousands of students.
A decade after the Endowment was established, Sister Rose's story was brought to the attention of film director Oren Jacoby. He recounts:
"(Sister Rose's supporters) came to me and asked if I'd be interested in working on a film about her. 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."
"She was a remarkable woman. She had charisma and a sense of humor, and she was grounded," said Oren Jacoby of Sister Rose
"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."
It's something film critics seemed to understand as well. The resulting short documentary Sister Rose's Passion earned an Oscar nomination and a Tribeca Film Festival award.
Sister Rose passed away in 2006, but her legacy lives on – through her film, through her Fund, and most important, through all those who do whatever it takes to eradicate religious prejudices and promote understanding and cooperation across all faiths.