The Sister Rose Thering Endowment at Seton Hall University in South Orange was established in honor of the late Catholic nun who staunchly supported Holocaust studies and battled against anti-Semitism in her church and beyond.
Working closely with the Catholic university’s Department of Jewish-Christian Studies, the endowment has provided some 350 scholarships for study within the department for school teachers.
The endowment also “supports the academic mission” of the department, whose stated goal is to “promote understanding among Jews and Christians.”
But a program committed to “mutual understanding” is facing a mini-revolt, as five members of the endowment’s 75-member board and executive board resigned from the committee in protest on Oct. 16; the endowment, they say, has lost its way.
In their letter of resignation, the five complain about a lack of information about endowment finances. They charge that the endowment is “seriously eroding its principal” and that its governing board has not discussed “effective and significant ways to reduce expenses.”
Moreover, they suggest, the endowment and the department are adding the study of Islam in a way that violates Sister Rose’s vision of Jewish-Christian dialogue.
“In the last year, the Department of Jewish-Christian Studies has broadened its mandate and expanded its courses to include education beyond Jewish-Christian relations,” the letter of resignation states. “The Endowment continues to support the newly expanded curricula and mandate without considering the ramifications to the Endowment or its mission.”
The signatories, all Jews, are Barbara Wind, director of the Holocaust Council of MetroWest; Lois Dranikoff of Livingston; Dina and Wayne Polay of West Orange, and Carol Simon of Millburn.
Above all, the resigning board members say, their concerns have not been addressed by the board with “full and open deliberation.”
Dranikoff, a member of the executive board since its inception in 1992, said the endowment’s board should have been informed about the introduction of the study of Islam, and been given the opportunity to debate whether that would alter the endowment’s mission.
“The question comes up as to whether the endowment has the right to support this change because the donors have given money to the endowment for Jewish-Christian studies,” Dranikoff told NJ Jewish News. “Every time we brought it up, it turned into a huge battle and we could never discuss it,”
University officials insist they have been transparent about finances.
As for the teaching of Islam, they say the subject has appeared as a subject in various courses, but only in relation to the study of the three “Abrahamic” faiths and not in a way that suggests the university is extending the interfaith dialogue to include Islam.
According to Monsignor Anthony Ziccardi, who has been conducting an inquiry into the complaints at the request of Seton Hall’s president, Monsignor Robert Sheeran, the signatories’ concerns about Islamic content in the department are overstated — and are not the mandate of the board to begin with.
“There was no problem about [the resigning members’] asking the question,” said Ziccardi in an interview at his on-campus office. “Even though it kept being raised, the rest of the board decided it didn’t have an issue with this.”
The board’s mandate, he said, does not include debating the academic offerings in the Jewish-Christian studies department.
“The only right the board would have is to decide they would give a scholarship to a student for this course but not that course,” Ziccardi added. “Anything else would be an infringement of academic freedom.”
But Ziccardi also disputed the premise of the resigning board members’ complaint.
“At no time we can see here at Seton Hall will there be a changing of the basic character of the department,” he told NJJN. “There is no thought of making the department the Jewish-Christian-Islamic Studies Department.”
A page on the Seton Hall website titled “Donate to the Endowment” states the department’s curriculum “includes a study of the three communities and teachings within the Abrahamic family of religions, including Islam.”
What was proposed, said Ziccardi, was, “a slight change in curriculum, but curricula are always changing in view of present circumstances.”
“The greatest threat right now to Jewish people is precisely from Islamic faiths,” he said. “If we are going to work against anti-Semitism, we need to work at it both from the education of Christians and the education of Muslims as well. I think that kind of understanding of the roots of these two faiths in Judaism is sorely lacking.”
The goal, he added, “is not to teach Islam. It is not to promote Islam. It is merely to say, ‘Judaism is the parent religion to two other major world religions, and this is what those two religions owe to Judaism.’”
Board member Rabbi Alan Brill, who teaches in the department as the Cooperman/Ross Endowed Professor in honor of Sister Rose Thering, declined to discuss details of the controversy. However, he labeled it “shul politics at a Catholic university.”
“There is no Islam being taught in the program now, and it is not on the agenda,” he told NJJN.
Wind, who called Thering her “second mother,” remains troubled.
“Those who knew Sister Rose well knew she felt the Muslim world was not ready for dialogue with Jews and even Christians. That’s what she used to say to me. I’m not saying she wouldn’t support this move by the department. It is not only about Islam.” But, she added, “our questions have been either ignored or rebuffed in no uncertain terms.”
Ziccardi said that when it comes to changing the terms of the Jewish-Christian dialogue, there is no “move” to talk about.
“I don’t think the Judeo-Christian Studies Department is looking to have a dialogue with Muslims,” he insisted. “The dialogue is still between Christians and Jews. The department has said on a number of occasions that is enough to deal with. I have spoken with professors individually, and none of them wants to change in that direction. They simply want to make reference to Islam in their courses without being told that it is illegitimate.”
The resigning board members also claim the school administration kept them in the dark about the endowment’s financial situation and the necessity to dip into its principal — or “corpus.”
“The corpus has been invaded and we did not know about this until after the fact,” complained Simon, who has studied at the department and competed one-third of the master’s degree program there.
“It has been very difficult to get information,” she said. “It appears we are eating up about 10 percent of the corpus every year. In 10 years it will have been eaten up. We have asked for figures and we’re not getting them.”
“This is not to say Seton Hall is doing anything wrong with our money,” added Dranikoff. “We just don’t know anything about our money.”
As far as the evaporating corpus is concerned, Ziccardi said “we have not verified that. We haven’t yet gotten all the figures in…But it doesn’t look like ‘Oh, my God. This thing is going to be bankrupt next year.’ That’s not the case.”
The monsignor added that “every year the board members are given statements as to how much money came from fund-raising and how much came in from the endowment’s investments and how much money has been spent and on what. I don’t know with what detail and how much they drill down, but I’ve read past minutes that include that kind of information,” he said.