Alan Silberstein: Sister Rose Thering’s Battle against Antisemitism

Who I am

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 I am the son of Survivors of the Holocaust who had the good fortune to grow up in post- World War II America. Although I experienced occasional antisemitism, I never felt limited for being Jewish. And, mostly, I have seen improvement. About 15 years ago, an effort to learn more about my family’s life in Poland before the war led to a project in Jewish Polish dialogue. In the course of this, one of the people whom I met, and who encouraged me, was an American nun whose work fighting antisemitism, and promoting interreligious dialogue, contributed greatly to that improvement. Sister Rose Thering, of blessed memory, now dead 11 years, was the most inspiring person I have ever met. In preparation for the International Conference, “An End to Antisemitism!” I determined to learn what made Sister Rose Thering who she was, and to assess her impact. I read through books and archives, spoke at length with her friends and collaborators, and listened to unpublished recorded interviews.

Who Was Sister Rose?

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Who was this woman often called a “feisty nun?” (More correctly, she was a “religious sister,” as her order was non-cloistered.) Sister Rose Thering was a member of the order of Dominican Sisters, who devoted the majority of her long life (she died at age 85 in 2006) to the fight against injustice and discrimination, and in particular, antisemitism in the Roman Catholic Church. Her graduate school research on the treatment of minorities, especially the Jews, in Catholic textbooks, directly impacted Nostra Aetate. This document was the Declaration of the Second Vatican Council on the Relation of the Church with Non-Christian Religions, promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1965 which removed the pariah label from the Jewish religion in Roman Catholic teaching.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 For the next forty years, she worked hard, and effectively, to ensure that Church teaching matched the new framework. Working from her base at Seton Hall University, a Roman Catholic school in New Jersey, she brought Jews and Christians to study together. She became a chief proponent of Holocaust education, a battler for Jewish causes, and a proponent for Israel. Perhaps her most lasting contribution was to promote a state education mandate requiring that the lessons of the Holocaust be taught at every grade level in her home state; a requirement which has since been emulated in several of the most populous American states.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Sister Rose was raised in the early 20th century, in a large, religiously observant German-American Roman Catholic family in Plain, Wisconsin, a small rural town in the Midwest. At a young age, she decided to become a nun, like three of her aunts; and also, a teacher. (“I wanted to be a nun, I wanted to give myself to God.”) She selected the Dominicans rather than her aunts’ Franciscan order, because this would assure her the opportunity to become a teacher. [1]

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Rose Thering entered religious life at age 18, in 1938, and took her vows two years later. For the next seventeen years she worked as a teacher and administrator in Catholic schools in the Midwest. She also earned her Masters’ degree in Education, at the College of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota, though her thesis topic gave no hint of her passion for fighting discrimination. Her thesis related to preparing adolescent girls for entering the religious life.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 As far as Sister Rose knew, in her youth, she had never met a Jew. She said later, as a child, she was troubled by what she learned in school about Jews; and by the antisemitism she perceived in her own family. And, as a teacher, she was disturbed by the way the approved textbooks described the Jews, both in Jesus’ time and in her day.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 When I learn of Gentiles who resisted the antisemitism of their peers, they tend to two camps: The first are people whose childhood friendships with Jews made it unthinkable for them to accept antisemitic values. A good example of this is Pope John Paul II, whose childhood and lifelong friendship with Jerzy Kluger contributed to the Pope’s fierce opposition to antisemitism and his becoming the first Pope to visit a synagogue. Another example is Winston Churchill, criticized for being “too fond of the Jews,” an attitude attributed by his biographer[2] to childhood friendships with Jews.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 The second are Jewish converts to Christianity, who cannot reconcile antisemitic attitudes with their own continued racial identification as Jews. Examples include Msgr. John M. Oesterreicher, and Fr. Paul Demann, both of whom became major figures in our story. They were devout Catholics who, for a long time, were devoted to converting other Jews. But, they also deplored the contempt with which Jews were held, arguing that love, not hate, would more likely win them over as converts.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 However, Sister Rose doesn’t fit either pattern. In my search to explain Sister Rose’s commitment to fighting antisemitism, I can find no motivation stronger than her innate hatred of injustice. She felt that antisemitism was immoral and also illogical. She developed a series of arguments which took complete form in her PhD thesis.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Her order urged her to complete her PhD in Education so she could take a leadership role at the Dominican College. In 1957, at age 37, she began her PhD studies at Saint Louis University, one of the oldest Catholic universities in the US, located in St. Louis, Missouri, under Jesuit Father Trafford P. Maher of the Education Department. This university was already involved in projects to promote interreligious understanding. Father Maher was the leader of their Workshops in Human Relations. For Sister Rose’s dissertation topic, he recruited her to study how Catholic religious teaching materials present other faith, racial and national groups. This put her in the right place at the right time to make a major intellectual contribution to a most historic revision, eight years later, in the Catholic Church’s views on Jews. Her thesis research was used by the representatives of the American Jewish Committee to convince the Ecumenical Council that the stand of the Catholic Church on the Jews needed to change. Judith Hershkopf Banki of the American Jewish Committee, called this timing “providential.”[3] She may have been thinking of the Yiddish word, “bashert.”

The American Jewish Committee Textbook Studies

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 How did the idea of such a textbook study come about? It was proposed by the American Jewish Committee. The AJC was first organized in 1906 to advocate for the defense of Jews in response to pogroms in Kishinev, in the Russian Empire. Their objective was “the protection, the preservation and the extension of the civil and religious rights and privileges of Jews.”[4] The AJC and other Jewish groups thought that what was being taught in religious schools was contributing to tension among American citizens. In fact, the first studies were self-critical reviews of textbooks used in Jewish Schools. in 1935, the Synagogue Council of American reviewed more than 300 Jewish textbooks and recommended that a quarter of them be discontinued. It also called for the inclusion of positive Jewish teaching on Jewish-Gentile relationships in Jewish textbooks.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 In 1958, Rabbi Morris N. Kertzer, AJC’s Director of Interreligious Affairs, decided to initiate a series of textbook “self-studies” by Jews, Protestants and Catholics, to determine how each group taught their students in America to understand members of other religions. These were to be conducted by scholars, each from their own faith’s perspective. While these projects were funded by the AJC, they were meant to be “independent studies, carried out and supervised by faithful adherents of the religion studied.”[5] The study of Jewish textbooks was conducted by Dr. Bernard D. Weinryb of Dropsie College (now part of the University of Pennsylvania). It concluded that while the Jewish material tended to make very little mention of non-Jewish groups, almost no negative views were expressed.[6] The Protestant study was supervised by Dr. Bernhard Olson of Yale University and completed in 1960. It found significant anti-Jewish sentiment expressed in the textbooks used by the major denominations of Protestantism to teach their youth.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 For the Catholic study, the AJC approached Fr. Maher of St. Louis University. Fr. Maher recruited three doctoral candidates to each conduct part of the study. Sister Mary Linus Gleason was assigned an analysis of English Literature textbooks used in Catholic parochial schools. Sister Mary Rita Mudd was assigned an analysis of Social Studies textbooks. And, in 1959, Sister Rose Thering began her study of Religion textbooks. Later in life, she told a friend that she knew from her days as a teacher that that was where all the controversial material was to be found.[7]

The Catholic Religion Textbook Study

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Sister Rose entitled her dissertation, “The Potential in Religion Textbooks for Developing a Realistic Self Concept – A Content Analysis.” She argued that “It is in their curriculum materials that religious schools nurture students in the particular faith which such schools are designed to foster. This almost inevitably involves reference to and comparison with other faith and ethnic groups.” The question she wanted to answer is: “Does it necessarily follow that the portrait of such groups— religious, racial, ethnic— will be unfavorable and prejudicial in comparison with the self-portrait?”[8]

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 For inspiration as to the methodology of her study, as well as for the implications, she drew heavily on prior work of a similar nature, completed in 1952 in France by Fr. Demann, whose own book was called The Teaching of Contempt; and on the Protestant study being completed at Yale by Bernhard Olson. To ensure that her conclusions would be representative, she identified the most frequently used books in Catholic schools and selected 65 volumes (texts and teaching guides) from eight publishers. Some of these books dated back to the 1930s, but many were revised or published in the late 1950s.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 She then proceeded to identify every single reference in these books to a religious or racial group; and evaluated the references to determine whether they reflected prejudice, and of what kind. Jews were but one of nine categories:

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 She evaluated each reference according to whether it reflected prejudice, and the type of portrait painted. And she evaluated whether the portrait, as compared with Roman Catholics, was negative, positive, neutral or undifferentiated. She encoded these findings into arithmetic scores and compiled the data by publisher. Most importantly, she also provided quotations from the texts and teaching guides to exemplify her classifications. The example quotations of the disparaging comments may have been more compelling than the fairly anodyne statistical scores.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 She gave examples of disparaging comments regarding Protestants and others; and of respectful comments regarding Jews. However, she found a preoccupation with Jews, and disparaging views dominant.

20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0 Based on her analyses and her belief that the disparagement was unwarranted, she made these recommendations to the publishers in her dissertation:

  • 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0
  • Show the continuity of Old and New Testaments.
  • Show Jesus as a Jew with a Jewish mother and, his Apostles and disciples as his Jewish friends.
  • Give a true picture of Judaism in the days of Jesus and stop denigrating present day Jews.
  • State clearly that the conflict was between Jesus and only some of the Jewish leaders.
  • Avoid identifying “all the Jewish people,” then or now, with some of the leaders of the Jews who plotted against Jesus.
  • Refrain from making negative value judgements of the Jewish people.
  • Explain that in the Crucifixion, Jesus suffered and died for the salvation of all.
  • Emphasize that nothing in the New Testament authorizes anyone to think that the Jewish people alone are under reprobation or a curse.

22 Leave a comment on paragraph 22 0 She pointed out that all these recommendations fit well within then existing Church dogma. She was imploring textbook publishers to be kinder, or as she would put it, more accurate, in their presentation of the Jews.

How the Jews got a place at Vatican II 

23 Leave a comment on paragraph 23 0 Were it not for Second Vatican Ecumenical Council, these textbook studies might have been destined for the library and not for the pivotal role they played in history. However, the year that the AJC commissioned these textbook studies, 1958, was the very same year that Pope John XXIII was elected. Because of his age, 76, he was expected by many observers to be a “caretaker.” But, he surprised them by announcing his plan to call an Ecumenical Council to discuss and settle matters of Church doctrine and practice.

24 Leave a comment on paragraph 24 0 By “ecumenical,” the Pope meant embracing all branches of Christianity, not the panoply of world religions later included. When the new Pope “was fielding ideas for the Council, almost none of the bishops and theologians canvassed suggested that the church speak out on the Jews.”[9] However, this new Pope did have a history of empathy for Jews. As Bishop Roncalli, while serving as a Vatican diplomat in Turkey and Greece during World War II, he was credited with saving tens of thousands of Jews by issuing baptismal certificates and by interfering with deportations.[10] Pope John also made an important gesture early in his reign by altering the Good Friday prayers to remove a reference to “perfidious (deceitful and untrustworthy) Jews.”[11]

25 Leave a comment on paragraph 25 0 From the beginning of his papacy, Pope John entered into a series of discussions with a French Jewish historian, and former Superintendent of Public Instruction in France, Jules Isaac, “who had lost his wife and daughter in the Holocaust. Isaac spoke with the Pope at length about both the Holocaust and the harmful consequences of some Church teachings. And, reportedly, Isaac was encouraged to make this point by his friend Fr. Demann who had completed his own textbook study. It is to these discussions that scholars attribute the Pope’s decision to expand the scope of the Ecumenical Council to include the Jews.

26 Leave a comment on paragraph 26 0 During the two years before the formal opening of Vatican II, preparation involved the appointment of ten commissions, one of which, the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, would take up the Jewish question. In June, 1960, the Pope appointed Cardinal Augustin Bea to head this commission. Cardinal Bea was a German priest and a biblical scholar with some experience in Christian-Jewish dialogue. He reached out to Catholic scholars, to Jewish representatives and also, to American Bishops, whom he knew to be advocates for improving relations with the Jews.

American Jewish Committee at Vatican II

27 Leave a comment on paragraph 27 0 The AJC, as well as other Jewish organizations, took the announcements in Rome as an opportunity to launch a broad diplomatic approach, with a team of representatives from the U.S. and Europe opening communications with various officials. Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum, recently appointed to succeed Kertzer as Director of Interreligious Affairs at the AJC, was among the most active representatives of the Jewish community working to support Cardinal Bea’s work. In assembling his team, 36-year old Rabbi Tanenbaum recognized that his former teacher at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the 54-year old theologian and philosopher, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, might be an effective liaison with the 80-year old Cardinal Bea, as both were biblical scholars educated in Germany.[12] Heschel and Bea did hit it off, and met several times in Rome, Boston and New York.[13] While Cardinal Bea was sympathetic to what he was being told about the injuries caused by Catholic teaching, he asked for academic papers to support the Jewish position.

28 Leave a comment on paragraph 28 0 For the first paper, Rabbi Tanenbaum turned to Judith Hershcopf Banki who had met with all the textbook scholars. When the request came to prepare a paper for Cardinal Bea, she prepared her own summary of Sister Rose’s findings, which the AJC submitted in 1961.[14]

29 Leave a comment on paragraph 29 0 Banki’s paper, “The Image of Jews in Catholic Teaching,”[15] made the case that such teaching, “particularly in the United Statesis fostering prejudice and hostility.” The AJC paper called on the Pope to improve
Catholic teaching about Jews and Judaism, by cleansing all Catholic educational and liturgical publications of inaccurate, distorted, slanderous or prejudiced statements about Jews as a group.”

30 Leave a comment on paragraph 30 0 She drew heavily on Sister Rose’s not-yet-completed dissertation for pedagogical arguments and conclusions about what was being said in religious textbooks. Like Sister Rose’s dissertation, Banki’s paper appealed to a higher purpose than just sympathy or even justice for the Jews. Where Sister Rose spoke of the importance of mutual respect among the citizens of the American democracy, Banki said that “prejudice against any religious group today inevitably weakens the entire fabric of society, degrades both the haters and the victims, and saps the spiritual strength of all mankind… [and]… serves only to advance the cause of anti-religious forces.” She acknowledged that antisemistism was not the policy of the Church but pointed out that “Catholic religious teaching today contains defamatory misstatements and omissions which may encourage hostility and contempt for Jews.” She pointed out many ways in which typical descriptions of Jews in teaching, and preaching, violated Church dogma.

31 Leave a comment on paragraph 31 0 She pointed out typical textbook practices:

33 Leave a comment on paragraph 33 0 An example: “When they (the Jews) would not heed the Prophets, He sent His only-begotten Son to call them to repentance. Him also they put to death. Because of this fact, they were finally rejected by God and their rights to His Kingdom were given to others.”

  • 34 Leave a comment on paragraph 34 0
  • Using the term “Jews” pejoratively to present them as “hate ridden, cruel and materialistic;” while in positive statements about the Jews of the Old Testament, the term “Hebrews” or “Israelites” was preferred.

35 Leave a comment on paragraph 35 0 An example: “Jesus … was rejected by the leaders of the Jewish people … because of their material and carnal minds …”

37 Leave a comment on paragraph 37 0 An example: “The Jews believed that one should hate an enemy; but Christ taught the opposite.”

39 Leave a comment on paragraph 39 0 An example: “There can be no doubt that the world must thank the Catholic Church for the Bible.”

40 Leave a comment on paragraph 40 0 The use of extensive quotations from textbooks provided irrefutable proof. These examples were quite powerful. When Cardinal Bea was presented with these examples, he is said to have replied, “Through our negative teaching we have promulgated the hatred against Jews, culminating in the Holocaust; and these must go.”[16]

41 Leave a comment on paragraph 41 0 Additional AJC memoranda were submitted in November of that same year: “Anti-Jewish Elements in Catholic Liturgy,” and “On Improving Catholic-Jewish Relations” prepared by Rabbi Heschel.

Vatican Council II’s Four Sessions 1962 – 1965

42 Leave a comment on paragraph 42 0 What happened next is a tale of leadership, diplomacy and intrigue which cannot be covered here adequately. The Vatican Council met over a four-year period. Formal meetings occurred several weeks each fall. However, important deliberations and negotiations occurred in the interim periods. Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Ecumenical Council in October 1962 but died only six months later. His successor, Pope Paul VI, maintained the momentum, opening three more sessions. At the final session in 1965, the Council voted to approve four “constitutions” and three “declarations,” one of which was “Nostra Aetate (In Our Time) – the Declaration on the Relation of the Church to Non-Christian Religions.”

43 Leave a comment on paragraph 43 0 It is important to realize that the issuance of a statement on the Jews was not preordained. In fact, “this statement was the most contested matter the bishops faced over four years of deliberations.”[17]

44 Leave a comment on paragraph 44 0 The proposal to issue a resolution on relations with the Jews was introduced in the first session, then subsequently withdrawn. Strong drafts were circulated, then watered down. During the intervening periods, additional papers were submitted. During the three years before the final adjournment in 1965, there was extensive lobbying by Jewish groups, including the AJC, in Rome and with influential bishops in the United States. On the other side, there was pressure from conservative Christian leaders who objected to changing the Church’s teaching about the Jews, by Arab leaders who objected politically, and by Christian leaders from Arab countries who feared for the repercussions to their own people. Overhanging these deliberations was the moral weight of the Holocaust cast by such events as the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann and, in 1963, the controversial play, The Deputy, which portrayed Pope Pius XII as having failed to speak out against the Holocaust. Finally, as the closing session approached, the declaration was reintroduced and expanded to include favorable references to Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and other religions.

45 Leave a comment on paragraph 45 0 Writing with the perspective of the passage of fifty years, Rabbi Noam Marans, one of Rabbi Tanenbaum’s successors at the AJC, assessed the impact thus: “Nostra Aetate was a sea change, a Copernican revolution, a Catholic self-reflection in the wake of the Shoah, that launched a new era of Catholic-Jewish relations. It rejected the charge that Jews are collectively guilty of killing Jesus, a charge that facilitated violence directed at Jews for centuries. Nostra Aetate prohibited Catholic teachings portraying Jews as accursed. It condemned antisemitism, affirmed Christianity’s Jewish roots and opened a conversation that ultimately led to a Catholic embrace of the eternity of God’s covenant with the Jewish people.”[18]

46 Leave a comment on paragraph 46 0 Sister Rose said simply, “In fifteen Latin lines that document… changed our negative relationship with Jews to a positive one.”[19]

Turning policy into action

47 Leave a comment on paragraph 47 0 With the promulgation of Nostra Aetate, and a call for “fraternal encounter,” the Church and the Jewish community established formal liaison committees and other bodies, which continue to this day to serve as forums for interreligious dialogue. In the United States, the Conference of Catholic Bishops, the very same group which issues the imprimatur for the Catholic textbooks, summoned educators and book publishers to a meeting in Washington. They told the publishers that their textbooks had to change and directed them to hire Jewish scholars to review their texts in light of Nostra Aetate.[20]

48 Leave a comment on paragraph 48 0 In 1967, the Conference issued guidelines[21] calling for changes to traditional teaching, in a litany which mirrors quite well, the recommendations of Sister Rose and Banki. These guidelines, and subsequent guidelines issued in 1975 and 1985 called for dialogue, avoidance of proselytizing, educational programs at Catholic schools and universities, and joint scholarly enterprises. And, that “School texts, prayer books, and other media should, under competent auspices, be examined in order to remove not only those materials which do not accord with the content and spirit of the Statement (Nostra Aetate), but also those which fail to show Judaism’s role in salvation history in any positive light.”[22] The Conference also established a Secretariat for Catholic-Jewish Relations, to which Sister Rose was invited to serve as an advisor. She continued to serve for 20 years.

49 Leave a comment on paragraph 49 0 Over the decades since Sister Rose conducted her textbook study, there have been several more textbook studies, and these have demonstrated continued progress. One researcher, Philip A. Cunningham said that in 1994, he was “able to chart the dramatic reversals in Catholic teaching about Jews that resulted from Nostra Aetate and to which Rose Thering had made such an important contribution. The transformation from the materials … were truly startling.”[23]

Sister Rose after Nostra Aetate

50 Leave a comment on paragraph 50 0 In 1961, what did a newly minted PhD, interested in Christian-Jewish relations, find to do in a world which has not yet heard of Nostra Aetate? To understand the turns in Sister Rose’s life, it is necessary to go back to 1959, to take note of a watershed event which occurred while she was still at Saint Louis University. The university scheduled an “Education Day” to which were invited Catholic school superintendents and book publishers from around the U.S. The textbook scholars from the three universities, including Sister Rose, presented their methods and their findings.

51 Leave a comment on paragraph 51 0 As Sister Rose began presenting her conclusions, an animated discussion began, and she was severely criticized by some of the leaders. One bishop said

52 Leave a comment on paragraph 52 0 “Rose Thering said Pope John XXIII inspired her because he took the word ‘perfidious’ out of the prayer we used to pray on Good Friday. But I want Rose Thering to know that he hasn’t changed the Gospel, and he never will.”[24]

53 Leave a comment on paragraph 53 0 Another called the local Bishop to say that a nun was bad-mouthing the Church. She was summoned and asked about her research. While he permitted her to continue, he urged her not to publicize her findings: “Don’t hang out our dirty laundry in public.” “Well,” she said later, “I hung it out.”[25] The experience was a searing one. Rather than becoming submissive, she became radicalized. She authorized her professor to publish her work under his name because “it had to get out.[26] She completed her thesis and received her degree. She determined that Jewish-Christian relations would become her calling, and she expected that it would make her a better Christian.

54 Leave a comment on paragraph 54 0 She returned to Racine to head the Dominican College’s Department of Education, as requested by her community. Two years later, in 1963, while serving in this capacity, Sister Rose traveled to Chicago to attend a National Conference on Religion and Race with representatives of Catholic, Jewish and Protestant organizations. The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr, who spoke, called it ‘‘the most significant and historic [convention] ever held for attacking racial injustice’’.[27] There, Sister Rose, Rev. King, and Rabbi Heschel all met each other for the first time. This experience inspired her to find more impactful work. In 1965, she relocated to Chicago to become an activist on the staff of the Catholic Adult Education Center, which was already deeply involved in interracial justice. She added Jewish studies to their agenda, inviting as speakers, scholars who were engaged in cutting edge interreligious work.

Seton Hall

55 Leave a comment on paragraph 55 0 In 1968, Sister Rose was recruited to New Jersey to join the staff of Seton Hall University’s Institute of Judaeo-Christian Studies, the first such academic institution in the world. It was founded by Msgr. Oesterreicher, one of the pioneers of inter-religious dialogue. Msgr. Oesterreicher had been a theology advisor to Cardinal Bea during the Ecumenical Council and wrote part of Nostra Aetate.

56 Leave a comment on paragraph 56 0 Born a Jew in Moravia, then part of Austria, in 1904, he converted to Roman Catholicism and became a priest in 1927. He considered himself simultaneously a Catholic and still a member of the Jewish people. Throughout his life, he was an advocate of Jewish-Catholic reconciliation and fought “antisemitism from a Catholic point of view.”[28] He argued that since the roots of Christianity were in Judaism, Christian antisemitism was illogical. Also, he argued that his fellow Jews could more easily be won over to Christianity with kindness than with contempt. He fought and fled the Nazis, first in Austria, then in France; and finally fled to the United States in 1940. His parents were killed in Theresienstadt and Auschwitz. He was ministering to a congregation in New York City, when in 1953, with the encouragement of a wealthy congregant, he created the institute dedicated to Catholic-Jewish relations in partnership with Seton Hall. At the inaugural lecture, he explained the need: “Today in the United States, and particularly here in the East, such millions as never before of Christians and Jews are living side by side. Should they not know more of one another than what the newspapers provide?[29] Because of his academic reputation, Cardinal Bea engaged him in the work of the Ecumenical Council.

57 Leave a comment on paragraph 57 0 At Seton Hall, Sister Rose organized what they called the “Menorah Studies” program, which brought Catholic School teachers to workshops with Jewish scholars. She befriended Holocaust survivors and made Holocaust education a central theme of the Institute. She also began to organize study tours of Israel.


58 Leave a comment on paragraph 58 0 To understand Sister Rose’s special relationship with Israel, it is necessary to revisit what was being taught to Catholic school children about Jews and their homeland, as late as 1960; that their just punishment for killing Jesus was to become and remain stateless. The Jews as a nation refused to accept Christ, and since His time they have been wanderers on the earth without a temple…” [30] Israel was portrayed as illegitimate. When the Declaration on the Jews was being considered at Vatican II, a statement was issued asserting that it was a religious statement, and not political. The Vatican did not establish formal diplomatic relations with the state of Israel until 1994.

59 Leave a comment on paragraph 59 0 In 1970, Sister Rose made her first visit to Israel, an event which changed her life. Visiting Yad Vashem, she said, told her, “the story of the results of antisemitism … brought about by our ‘contempt teaching’ about Jews.”[31] She subsequently led 53 more missions of Jews and Christians to Israel. Each was an opportunity to educate Americans of different religions about each other. as well as, to build empathy and support for the young country.

60 Leave a comment on paragraph 60 0 When Jewish groups demonstrated on behalf of Israel, she took to the streets with them, as she wished her people had done in the 1930s. Sister Rose was one of the first non-Jewish officers of the influential American Israel Friendship League. And, together with leaders of other Christian sects, she helped to organize the National Christian Leadership Conference for Israel. Subsequently, she served as its Executive Director for several years. Sister Rose spoke countless times to Jewish and Christian groups, on the topic, “A Christian Speaks on Israel.” Reading through her speeches reveals that she was as passionate a Zionist as any Jew. She said in 1993:

61 Leave a comment on paragraph 61 0in the process of loving for, and caring for, and rebuilding the ancient wasteland, the Jewish People itself was reborn and eventually, the Nation of Israel emerged! It is now a rightful member of the Family of Nations. It is this State of Israel, legally and morally founded, that is the Homeland of the Jewish People. No U.N. resolution of the General Assembly will ever change this![32]

62 Leave a comment on paragraph 62 0 Whenever Israel was threatened, Sister Rose used her voice and ever-increasing influence to be heard – in Washington, in the Vatican, and at the UN. Interestingly, one of her targets was Kurt Waldheim when he was Secretary General of the UN. She wrote letters questioning his criticism of Israel in the face of Palestinian terrorism.

63 Leave a comment on paragraph 63 0 Later, in 1986, she took on Waldheim more dramatically. she came to Vienna to protest his inauguration as president of Austria. She and Father David Bossman, then provost of Seton Hall, joined her friend, activist Rabbi Avi Weiss, on a trip to Vienna to protest the inauguration of Waldheim’s inauguration as president of Austria. Waldheim was accused of suppressing the record of his German army service as a Wehrmacht officer. Also, he was implicated in the roundup and deportation of Greek Jews to Auschwitz.

64 Leave a comment on paragraph 64 0 Sister Rose said she went “to lend a Christian voice to this protest, because I feel that Christians did not speak out enough during World War II.”[33] They joined other peaceful protesters at various locations. While, their demonstrations attracted both critics and supporters of Waldheim, she was particularly disheartened by the virulent antisemitic reactions of the local population.

65 Leave a comment on paragraph 65 0 Most shocking to her, however, was her experience at the Vienna airport prior to returning home. She was subjected to a humiliating strip-search by local police, an experience she compared, “in a tiny way,” with the humiliation of Jews during the Holocaust. “…before I knew it, I was totally nude. For the first time, I know what my Jewish sisters had gone through before they were thrown into the gas chambers.[34] When she was invited to the Austrian consulate in New York to receive an apology, one of the younger consular officers commented that the Holocaust was never taught in school.

Commission on Holocaust Education

66 Leave a comment on paragraph 66 0 Sister Rose believed in teaching the lessons of the Holocaust. The State of New Jersey has one of the highest concentrations of Jews and Holocaust survivors and their descendants in the United States. In 1982, Thomas Kean, then Governor of the state, having learned that individual school districts had been developing curricula about the Holocaust, called together a group of survivors, legislators, and educators. His intent was “to develop generations of young people sensitized to the baseness and the consequences of bigotry carried out to its logical extremes.”[35]

67 Leave a comment on paragraph 67 0 Gov. Kean appointed Sister Rose to a new Advisory Council on Holocaust Education to develop curricular material and promote its use statewide. She thought it should be mandatory. For the next twelve years she worked tirelessly with successive Governors and members of the State Legislature to pass a law, in 1994, mandating that lessons of the Holocaust and genocide be taught in every public-school at every grade level. A permanent Commission was named to support compliance with the requirement.

68 Leave a comment on paragraph 68 0 The passage of the legislation was helped by Steven Spielberg in October 1994 when he accepted the Academy Award for his film Schindler’s List, which was distributed to every legislator in New Jersey:

69 Leave a comment on paragraph 69 0 “There are 350 thousand survivors of the Holocaust alive today. I implore all the educators who are watching this program to, please, do not allow the Holocaust to remain a footnote in history. Please teach this in your schools. There are 350 thousand experts who just want to be useful with the remainder of their lives. Please listen to the words and the echoes and the ghosts. And, please teach this in your schools.[36]

70 Leave a comment on paragraph 70 0 Today, the Commission coordinates with 32 university centers to ensure that school teachers are well equipped to teach about the Holocaust, in an age-appropriate fashion; as well as, about the evils of prejudice and discrimination. Studies have confirmed their deterrent effect on antisemitism, prejudice, and hate crimes.[37] Inspired by New Jersey, seven more states have passed similar legal mandates, and 20 more are considering them.

Sister Rose Thering Fund for Education in Jewish-Christian Studies

71 Leave a comment on paragraph 71 0 In 1975 Seton Hall University created a degree granting program in Jewish-Christian Studies. With the passage of the Holocaust Education law, teachers working in public schools and in religious schools of all faiths were encouraged to enroll. Sister Rose asked supporters to raise scholarship funds for these teachers. To date, hundreds of teachers have studied there, taking courses such as “Christian Jewish Encounter” and “Lessons of the Holocaust.” The fund stands as a living memorial to Sister Rose.

Legacy & Lessons

72 Leave a comment on paragraph 72 0 Sister Rose never stopped teaching or speaking out. Despite her interest in Jews, she never became a less devout Catholic. In 2001, Sister Rose Thering “finally received long overdue acknowledgement for the role her research had played at the Second Vatican Council, an award from the International Liaison Committee of the Holy See’s Commission on Relations with the Jews and the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations.”[38] Six months before her death from illness in May 2006, she returned to the community where she had entered religious life 70 years earlier.

73 Leave a comment on paragraph 73 0 What are the lessons one can draw from this unique individual who devoted her life to leaving us a better world than the one she found? What can be done to continue the battle against antisemitism?

74 Leave a comment on paragraph 74 0 First, Encourage Dialogue- Formal platforms and programs enable professionals and laymen to work together on common problems. Not every problem can be solved- especially theological ones. But, working together breeds mutual understanding and respect, allows friendship and trust to develop, and reduces the gaps between positions. Friends give each other the benefit of the doubt.   Formal mechanisms for dialogue created the friendships and trust which enabled Cardinal Bea’s project to progress well beyond anyone’s wildest expectation. Formal mechanisms which bring religious leaders together today, continue the progress.

75 Leave a comment on paragraph 75 0 Second, Academic Rigor– The textbook studies, arduous as they were, provided incontrovertible proof that generations were being taught to hate. They pointed out exactly which concepts, and which descriptions of the other, were at the root of antisemitism. Presented with the facts of what was being taught, and the implications of that teaching on society, Church leaders changed dogma as well as how it was communicated.

76 Leave a comment on paragraph 76 0 Third, Use the Classroom– On occasion, Sister Rose liked to quote the lyrics from Richard Roger and Oscar Hammerstein’s South Pacific:

77 Leave a comment on paragraph 77 0 You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear
You’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught

78 Leave a comment on paragraph 78 0 You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade
You’ve got to be carefully taught

79 Leave a comment on paragraph 79 0 You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught

80 Leave a comment on paragraph 80 0 People learn to hate in many ways; not all in school. But school is a good place to reverse the process.

81 Leave a comment on paragraph 81 0 Fourth, Commit Strategically- Nostra Aetate would never have come to fruition if organized Judaism had not begun, many years earlier, to work for the rights of Jews by building bridges to religious and government institutions. The pursuit of textbook studies was a brilliant strategy. When those studies began, no one could guess where they would lead. Holocaust education would not be embedded in educational curriculum in the United States and elsewhere, if leaders like Sister Rose had not labored for decades to build the institutions to support that objective.

82 Leave a comment on paragraph 82 0 Finally, Courage– Sister Rose never lost hers!


83 Leave a comment on paragraph 83 0 [1] Sr. Immaculata Schmidt O.P., Oral History Interview of Sister Rose Thering, August 5, 1993, archives of the Sienna Center, Racine.

84 Leave a comment on paragraph 84 0 [2] Author’s private discussion with Martin Gilbert, London, August 2006.

85 Leave a comment on paragraph 85 0 [3] Author’s interview with Judith Banki, December 21, 2017, Sydney.

86 Leave a comment on paragraph 86 0 [4] The New York Daily Tribune, Jews to Help Race. Form Big Organization, November 12, 1906.

87 Leave a comment on paragraph 87 0 [5] Judith Banki, Pivotal Figure: The Woman Behind ‘Nostra Aetate,’ Commonweal, June 16, 2006 .

88 Leave a comment on paragraph 88 0 [6] Eugene Fisher, Perspectives: Christian teaching and Judaism, service international de documentation judéo-chrétienne (France), SIDIC Periodical IX – 1976/3 Women in Jewish and Christian Tradition, 19.

89 Leave a comment on paragraph 89 0 [7] Author’s interview with Sister Michelle Ollie, Racine, January 4, 2018.

90 Leave a comment on paragraph 90 0 [8] Sister Rose M. Albert Thering, O.P., The Potential in Religion Textbooks for Developing a Realistic Self Concept: A Content Analysis, iv.

91 Leave a comment on paragraph 91 0 [9] John Connelly, From Enemy to Brother (Harvard University Press, 2012) 240.

92 Leave a comment on paragraph 92 0 [10] Thomas L. McDonald, John XXIII and the Jews, The Catholic World Report, April 3, 2014.

93 Leave a comment on paragraph 93 0 [11] Connelly, From Enemy to Brother, 240.

94 Leave a comment on paragraph 94 0 [12] Gary Spruch, Wide Horizons: Abraham Joshua Heschel, AJC, and the Spirit of Nostra Aetate, AJC, March 2008, 4.

95 Leave a comment on paragraph 95 0 [13] Deborah and Gerald Strober, Thou Shalt Not Standby Idly, Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum: The Man and His Times, unpublished manuscript.

96 Leave a comment on paragraph 96 0 [14] It is noteworthy, as pointed out to the author by Fr. John T. Pawlikowski, OSM in an interview on December 27, 2017, that neither woman’s name- Rose or Judith- was identified anywhere in this or subsequent submissions to the Vatican. Fr. Pawlikowski is the author of Catechetics and Prejudice: How Catholic Teaching Materials View Jews, Protestants and Racial Minorities (Paulist Press, 1973) which was based on Sister Rose’s thesis research.

97 Leave a comment on paragraph 97 0 [15] The Image of the Jews in Catholic Teaching, A Memorandum to the Secretariat for Christian Unity, Submitted by the American Jewish Committee, New York, June 22, 1961.

98 Leave a comment on paragraph 98 0 [16] Schmidt, Oral History Interview of Sister Rose Thering.

99 Leave a comment on paragraph 99 0 [17] Connelly, From Enemy to Brother, 240.

100 Leave a comment on paragraph 100 0 [18] Noam Marans, Msgr. John Oesterreicher Memorial Lecture, Seton Hall University, November 3, 2016.

101 Leave a comment on paragraph 101 0 [19] Schmidt, Oral History Interview of Sister Rose Thering.

102 Leave a comment on paragraph 102 0 [20] Author’s interview with Fr. John T. Pawlikowski, OSM, December 27, 2017, Chicago, Illinois.

103 Leave a comment on paragraph 103 0 [21] Guidelines for Catholic-Jewish Relations. Issued by Bishops’ Committee for Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs National Conference of Catholic Bishops, March 1967.

104 Leave a comment on paragraph 104 0 [22] Guidelines for Catholic-Jewish Relations- 1985 Revision.

105 Leave a comment on paragraph 105 0 [23] In Memory of Sister Rose, Boston College Center for Christian-Jewish Learning, 2006.

106 Leave a comment on paragraph 106 0 [24] Rogers, Carole Garibaldi. Habits of Change: An Oral History of American Nuns (Oxford Oral History Series) Oxford University Press, 159.

107 Leave a comment on paragraph 107 0 [25] Oren Jacoby, Sister Rose’s Passion, Documentary Film, 2004.

108 Leave a comment on paragraph 108 0 [26] Schmidt, Oral History Interview of Sister Rose Thering.

109 Leave a comment on paragraph 109 0 [27] Stanley Pieza, Rev. King Urges Boycott by Churches to Fight Bias, Chicago’s American, 16 January 1963.

110 Leave a comment on paragraph 110 0 [28] Connelly, From Enemy to Brother, 11.

111 Leave a comment on paragraph 111 0 [29] John M. Oesterreicher, Why Judaeo-Christian Studies, The Institute of Judeaeo-Christian Studies, Seton Hall University, 1954.

112 Leave a comment on paragraph 112 0 [30] Thering, The Potential in Religion Textbooks for Developing a Realistic Self Concept: A Content Analysis, 177

113 Leave a comment on paragraph 113 0 [31] Schmidt, Oral History Interview of Sister Rose Thering.

114 Leave a comment on paragraph 114 0 [32] Sister Rose Thering, Reflections: A Christian Educator’s Thoughts for Post Holocaust Education, 1992, 19.

115 Leave a comment on paragraph 115 0 [33] JTA press story, July 21, 1986.

116 Leave a comment on paragraph 116 0 [34] National Catholic Reporter, December 1986.

117 Leave a comment on paragraph 117 0 [35] Governor Thomas Kean, Introduction to Curricular Guide, 1982.

118 Leave a comment on paragraph 118 0 [36] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1HKTYYX50hQ

119 Leave a comment on paragraph 119 0 [37] including Barbara Lorfink Hadzima, Prejudice Elimination: An Analysis Of The Effectiveness Of The New Jersey State Mandate To Teach The Holocaust And Genocide, Seton Hall University, 1999.

120 Leave a comment on paragraph 120 0 [38] Judith Banki, Pivotal Figure: The Woman Behind ‘Nostra Aetate,’ Commonweal, June 16, 2006.

Source: https://opr.degruyter.com/confronting-antisemitism-through-the-ages-a-historical-perspective/alan-silberstein-sister-rose-therings-battle-against-antisemitism/