Four years after her death, a roomful of Holocaust survivors and Jewish activists gathered on the Aidekman campus in Whippany to mark the yahrtzeit and say Kaddish for a Catholic nun.
The woman they memorialized was Sister Rose Thering, a staunch fighter against anti-Semitism who occasionally went to battle with members of her church’s hierarchy in support of Jewish interests.
She was a Holocaust educator who inspired the establishment of the Sister Rose Thering Endowment, which supports graduate studies in the Department of Jewish-Christian Studies at Seton Hall University in South Orange.
For the last several years of her life, she resided at the Lester Senior Housing Community on the Aidekman campus; she died in 2006 at the age of 85.
To open the commemoration ceremony, Barbara Wind, director of the Holocaust Council of MetroWest, said, “Sister Rose was so important for the Jewish world and the Christian world…. There was no Sister Rose before Sister Rose, and no one even comes close to meeting the challenge of doing what she did to stop Christian anti-Semitism.”
Etzion Neuer, director of the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey region, said Thering “stood for more than just fighting anti-Semitism. We really miss her voice so much. She was truly an exceptional person, and when you have a group predominantly of Jews commemorating her, it is worth noting.”
But, he told the approximately 25 people at the gathering, the battle she was committed to fighting is far from over. “I am wearing a yarmulke on my head,” said Neuer. “Many of you are wearing Jewish symbols. But there are people in Europe who don’t feel comfortable with a star of David or even a T-shirt with Hebrew letters on it. Some people have learned to live with the knowledge that walking in the streets with a Jewish symbol puts you at risk of violence, intimidation, and harassment….
“We have to ask ourselves: Would we tolerate this in Livingston, in Springfield, in Montclair?… Governments are failing to meet their legal obligations to keep Jews safe from discrimination and violence.”
Neuer charged that rhetoric in some college debates on the Middle East has crossed the line from anti-Israeli to anti-Semitic. “If world leaders don’t speak up, they will allow the threats of Hamas and Iran to go unchallenged.”
“Now, when Jewish communities needs allies,” Neuer said, “we need Sister Rose’s voice. She had this incredible resolve to change the Church’s teaching about Jews. Her deep belief in her faith allowed her to seize the moment.”
But after years of an “upward trend” in Jewish-Catholic relations, “we are at a time now when there is concern about regression,” he lamented. “This pope has not made Jewish-Catholic relations a top priority.”
While New Jersey is the 47th of 50 states in terms of area, Neuer said, it has registered first or second in recent years in complaints of anti-Semitism. “Are people in New Jersey bigots? Are we worse than other parts of the country?” he asked.
It may be not a higher incidence of anti-Semitism, but an effective reporting system that skews the numbers, he said. “New Jersey is very good at reporting bias incidents,” said Neuer. “In a sense, New Jersey is a victim of its own efficiency. In a year when New Jersey reported 782 hate crimes, Mississippi reported four.”
Before Jehiel Orenstein, rabbi emeritus at Congregation Beth El in South Orange, led the group in reciting Kaddish, Wind said she had been asked to say the Jewish prayer for the dead at Thering’s funeral in Wisconsin.
“I realized Sister Rose never lost a teaching moment, and she wanted her last moment on earth to be a teaching moment for her sisters in the convent,” said Wind. “She wanted them to know it was an ancient prayer that was probably said at Jesus’ burial, and she wanted it said at her own funeral.”