Sen. Robert Menendez (D-NJ) warned of growing racism and anti-Semitism — thinly veiled as criticism of Israel — as he spoke at an event honoring Sister Rose Thering, a nun who led a sea change in relations between Catholics and Jews.
Menendez spoke about Thering’s legacy on Dec. 11 at Seton Hall University in South Orange, where before her death in 2006 Thering was professor emerita and namesake of the Sister Rose Fund for Education in Jewish-Christian Studies.
Menendez said Thering understood Israel to be “a shining light,” of crucial importance not just to Jews but to the United States and the world.
The senator’s talk was the inaugural event of the Dr. Marcia Robbins-Wilf Lecture Series, named for a trustee of the Sister Rose Fund who endowed the series.
Robbins-Wilf, an educator and philanthropist who has helped train those teaching in the Jewish-Christian Studies program, told NJJN that Menendez was invited to be the first speaker in the series because his priorities as a legislator mesh with the goals of the fund.
Though he never met the indomitable nun, Menendez said, his values always dovetailed with hers. He described her as “a luminary, an incredible asset to the Catholic faith,” and quoted her belief that “when one is diminished, all are diminished.”
As the son of Cuban immigrants, he experienced hardship and discrimination himself, he said, and began his own efforts to foster education and understanding when he won a seat on the board of education in Union City when he was just 20 years old.
He told the audience of around 110 that the struggle to overcome racism has become even more urgent in the United States. Citing the case of Rennison Vern Castillo, a naturalized U.S. citizen and Army veteran detained for months as a suspected illegal immigrant, he urged the audience to be proactive in combating hate speech and to foster not just tolerance but respect among different groups.
Citing Sister Rose’s unflagging support for Israel, Menendez warned of the dangers of anti-Israel rhetoric in the United States and from figures like Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“History shows us that big talk almost inevitably leads to acts of hatred,” Menendez said, adding that the dictum “Never again” must be backed up with actions to prevent future genocides.
The evidence suggests, he said, that Iran is perhaps one year away from developing a nuclear weapon, and that it must be stopped. Not only is Israel threatened by such a possibility, but that possibility also poses a national security threat to the United States.
“This is not something that we can allow,” he said.
Other speakers on the program included Dr. David Bossman, executive director of the Sister Rose Thering Fund and professor of Jewish-Christian studies in Seton Hall’s Department of Religion; Dr. Joan Guetti, interim dean of its College of Arts and Sciences; and Dr. Naomi Wish, director of its Center for Public Service.
Prior to becoming a professor of education specializing in Christian-Jewish studies at Seton Hall in 1973, Thering was the author of a groundbreaking study of textbooks used in Roman Catholic parochial schools. The study influenced the 1965 Vatican document “Nostra Aetate,” which addressed the negative image of Jews being taught in Catholic classrooms and pulpits.