TEANECK, N.J., May 9 I first encountered Sister Rose Thering, who died on Saturday at 85, close to 20 years ago. According to a press release that came into our office, she was scheduled to address a Jewish organization and she was a Dominican nun. I knew nothing else about her then not that she was a lifelong crusader against anti-Semitism, not that she was a partisan for the sake of Holocaust survivors, not that she stood, literally, in solidarity with oppressed Jews in the Soviet Union. A nun speaking to Jews? That was interesting, unusual, enough to land her photo on The Jewish Standard’s front page. Not a big, colorful picture, mind, not like the front pages we run today. It was only about two inches square, black and white, what we call a mug shot, at the lower corner of a column. A message was waiting for us on our answering machine the next morning. A woman’s voice said, “If you ever put a nun on your front page again, we will close you down.” Naturally, we ran that photo every chance we got, although never again, as it happened, on the front page. Some years later, when I wrote a freelance column on religion in North Jersey for The Record, I decided to inaugurate it with a piece about Sister Rose. I called her to set up an interview and give myself the pleasure of meeting her. It was, as it turned out, an unexpected pleasure. Everything about her was unexpected. “Shalom, shalom,” her answering machine message began. It was just before Yom Hashoah, and she was hard to pin down. She was out lecturing on the evils of the Holocaust and the lessons that could be wrested from it. Finally, we arranged to meet, and I brought her flowers. It didn´t seem right to visit Sister Rose empty-handed, when she had done so much for us for all of us. She was a small woman, wearing sandals and jeans at a time when many nuns had gratefully abandoned their heavy black habits but still favored conservative dress. And her red hair was obviously dyed. She was wholly surprising and wholly delightful. Everywhere in her Essex County apartment were artifacts from Israel and scenes of Israel, which she visited, over her lifetime, more than 90 times, sometimes leading Jewish or joint Christian-Jewish missions. These were gifts from celebrated admirers and just plain folks. The tapestry of Jerusalem on her living room wall, for example, was the gift of Golda Meir. Awards for Sister Rose’s activism in Christian-Jewish relations crowded surfaces and covered whole walls and that was in 1993. Her work trying to reverse centuries of the Catholic Church’s “contempt teaching” (in French historian Jules Isaac’s phrase) against the Jews continued, even from her latter-day sickbed, and the awards continued to flow in as well. The appreciations, particularly from Jewish organizations, are still coming. Many of them say the same thing: “We mourn the death of our dear friend Sister Rose” (American Jewish Congress); “Sister Rose Thering, a cherished friend of the Jewish people” (American Jewish Committee); “our dear friend and colleague” (Anti-Defamation League). She spoke passionately, that day in 1993 and every day, about the wicked distortions she had discovered in the way her faith taught about Jews. Her contempt for contempt teaching began early, she told me then, “when I found within my [religion] books derogatory things about Jews and Judaism.” She grew up in a part of Wisconsin where there were no Jews, so she asked her teachers, “Who are the Jews?” They gave her the same answer as the books: “The Jews killed Christ.” She joined the Dominicans because their’s was a teaching order, and ultimately earned a doctorate in education and history. Contempt teaching, she told me, contributed to such horrors as the Holocaust. Thus the Holocaust, a focus of her doctoral research, became a focus of her life. Copies of her dissertation, completed in 1961 and later published as “Cathetics and Prejudice,” were sent to publishers with notes about their books’ “negative teaching presentation of other faith groups.” And a summary was presented at the Second Vatican Council, which convened in 1962 to 1965, to show, she said, “that we did have negative teachings about Jews and Judaism, and other faith groups.” “I know that it helped,” she told me, and I believe her. “Those 15 Latin lines changed the negative relations we’ve had with Jews forever to a positive relationship.” The lines, in the statement on the Jews in the Vatican II document “Nostra Aetate,” “In Our Age,” declared that the death of Jesus “cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. The Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God.” She also helped design this state’s mandated curriculum on the Holocaust. But, she added, “anti-Semitism is still here,” and just two years ago she repeated those sad words in a telephone conversation we had about Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ.” She was having trouble breathing, and I could hear that she was very ill but I could also hear that she was still fighting the battle she had made her life’s cause. Her own passion the story of her development from a child in Wisconsin into a challenger of Catholic doctrine was the subject of a Oscar-nominated documentary, “Sister Rose’s Passion,” directed by Oren Jacoby. One Internet commentator calling himself selectorshalom from Brooklyn wrote, after seeing the film at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2004, with Sister Rose present, “While the film’s conflict, the struggle to change official church doctrine, is poignant given the popularity of Gibson’s ‘Passion,’ it is Sister Rose herself who steals the show. This elderly nun, who is not in the best of health, has more spitfire than a Redbull-guzzling adolescent skater. While this is accurately portrayed in the film, it became even more evident during the Q & A session. Sister Rose took themike from the director and would not give it back. While she did answer the audience’s questions, she did an equal amount of prophesizing and preaching on the topics of equality, justice and the fight against hate. I left that screening with a renewed sense of optimism and the furnace of my own ‘passion’ stoked!” In 1992, Seton Hall University in South Orange, where Sister Rose was professor emerita, established the Sister Rose Thering Endowment for Jewish-Christian Studies. According the Catherine Memory, the university’s director of media relations, “the endowment builds on the interfaith education work of Sister Rose by providing scholarship assistance for teachers in graduate-level Jewish-Christian and Holocaust Studies, developing curriculum resources, and presenting workshops for teachers in public, private and parochial schools.” She added that “more than 350 teachers and an estimated 150,000 students throughout New Jersey have benefited from the endowment since its inception.” Monsignor Robert Sheeran, the president of the university, called Sister Rose’s death “an immense loss for all men and women who seek to forge a world of greater understanding.” Some of those men and women honored her at a ceremony in Washington just one year ago. Presenting Sister Rose with the ADL’s Cardinal Brea Interfaith Award, Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, said, “Beauty, it is said, is in the eye of the beholder. In the eye of this beholder, Sister Rose Thering is the most beautiful person I know. “Her passion, her determination, her fight for goodness and justice, are shining lights banishinganti-Semitism and Holocaust denial into the darkness where they belong.” May the memory of our beautiful, dear friend be a blessing.
Sister Rose Thering dies at 85