While it’s said that “no one ever said ‘no’ to Sister Rose Thering,” there is at least one instance in which the pioneering advocate for Christian-Jewish relations did not get her way.
In 1994, Seton Hall University in South Orange established a fund with the goal of fostering understanding and cooperation among Jews, Christians, and people of other religious traditions through advocacy and education — a mission Sister Rose pursued for almost 40 years as a member of the Seton Hall faculty.
“Sister Rose absolutely did not want the fund named after her, but we insisted,” recalled immediate past chair of the fund, Catholic educator Paul Gibbons, a New Providence resident. “She was getting older, and we wanted to do something that would very clearly represent her and continue her work.”
Sister Rose died in 2006 at the age of 85, but the Sister Rose Thering Fund for Education in Jewish-Christian Studies has gone on to provide scholarships to over 350 educators in New Jersey to study in Seton Hall’s Jewish-Christian Studies program. Those teachers are estimated to have reached more than 150,000 students throughout the state.
The woman Gibbons described as “an unstoppable force of nature” enlisted him and 31 other people to run the fund. Those founders will be honored on Sunday afternoon, May 4, at the 21st annual Evening of Roses fund-raiser at Seton Hall.
In addition to Gibbons, they include Shirley Aidekman-Kaye, Julia and David Altholz, Jacqueline Berke, David Bossman, Susan Feinstein, Eugene Fisher, the Reverend Lawrence Frizzell, Monsignor John Gilchrist, Sister Mary Gomolka, Rabbi Irving and Blu Greenberg, Jerome and Rita Horowitz, Luna Kaufman, Marlene Jacobs, Murray Laulicht, Jacqueline and Howard Levine, the Reverend John Morley, Karan and Kenneth Oleckna, Lois Lautenberg, Pearl Randall Lehrhoff, Marilyn Rosenbaum, Hattie Segal, Howard Tepper, Regina Townsend, Joseph Volker, Robert Werbel, and Marcia Robbins Wilf.
As always, the event will also honor the work of the late Monsignor John M. Oesterreicher, who 60 years ago established Seton Hall’s Institute of Judaeo-Christian Studies, and in 1968 welcomed Sister Rose to its staff.
Sister Rose believed education was the key to overcoming prejudice and that the best approach was to teach teachers. As Deborah Lerner Duane, current chair of the fund, put it, “One of Sister Rose Thering’s many gifts was an ability to recognize in others their own desire to create a world free of religious prejudice.”
Gibbons said, “We have made great progress but the struggle isn’t over. We can’t forget, or it will happen again.”
Reciprocal respect between Christians and Jews was Sister Rose’s driving mission, and it was the cornerstone of her relationship with Holocaust survivor Luna Kaufman. “Neither of us could remember exactly when or where we first met, but we were friends for 36 years,” recalled Kaufman, an author and educator who lives in Watchung and New York.
One of her favorite memories of their friendship was from 2000. “The Second Intifada had just broken out, and the Jewish federation wanted people to come on a trip to Jerusalem. “I said, ‘Come!’ and she immediately agreed to.
“She was getting older and her health was already not so good, but nothing could stop her,” said Kaufman. “She was so brave. Everywhere we went in Jerusalem, people knew her.” They were there for a week, and had been home for no more than a month when Thering called Kaufman and asked her to go back to Israel with her, with a Catholic mission. “Of course, I said yes,” Kaufman recalled.
Robert Werbel, a lawyer who lived in Maplewood and now resides in Manhattan, met Sister Rose about 40 years ago through his mother, who sat next to the nun in a Hebrew class at Oheb Shalom Congregation in South Orange. “There are those who behave courageously when confronted with injustice,” he said. “She went in search of injustice and acted courageously in the face of it.”
Werbel helped Sister Rose at a time when the late Israeli leader Ariel Sharon was being sued by Time, Inc., and the defense asked Sister Rose to give a deposition on how Israel’s safety was of importance not just to Jews. “Facing the high-priced, highly experienced Time Inc. lawyers, within 10 minutes she had control of the courtroom,” he said. “She was so fierce, so passionate about her beliefs.”
He went on to serve as president of the fund after Sister Rose herself, and has since stayed involved. In addition to introducing Catholics to Jews and Judaism, that connection, he said, gave him friendships with Catholics he might never have had otherwise. “She is still very much with us,” he said.
Lerner said, “Sister Rose personally selected each of the 32 women and men being honored on May 4 and saw in all of them a passion as strong as her own. Our founders have, for 20 years, committed themselves to advancing Sister Rose’s legacy. We are proud of the way in which they continue to foster understanding and cooperation among Jews, Christians, and people of other religious traditions through advocacy and education.”