Not often enough do we have the good fortune of knowing an extraordinary individual. Yet, the untold numbers who, in one way or another, came into contact with Sister Rose Thering knew she was an extraordinary person. Her dedication, passion, modesty, humanity and humor were infectious in the best sense. Sister Rose, who died this week at age 85, was a woman, nun, educator and compassionate and committed human being who helped bring about change against great odds.
Sister Rose understood early in life that anti-Semitism was wrong and devoted herself to working against it. As a young girl in Wisconsin she was taught in Catholic school that Jews were Christ killers. Years later, as a Catholic school teacher, she was shocked that the religious textbooks and teachings remained unchanged. Her inquisitiveness and sensitivity led her to work toward bringing about change. She did a study on anti-Semitism in Catholic texts that resulted in her 1961 doctoral dissertation, which exposed the anti-Jewish slanders in textbooks and preaching.
They say timing is everything in life, and how true that was for Sister Rose. She lived during a time of overt anti-Semitism in this country, as well as during a time of activism and change. It was certainly fortunate, if not divinely inspired, that her resolve to change the Church's teaching about Jews coincided with the Church's reform movement. Her deep belief in and respect for her faith provided the foundation for her to seize the moment. She knew that change must come from the top and then filter down to the pews and the classrooms. So she went to the Vatican, to press for that change with the power brokers of the church, at the time when Pope John XXIII determined to deal decisively with the question of Christian anti-Semitism, and to pursue a major reconciliation with his Jewish brothers and sisters.
The pope turned to his confidant and fellow ecumenical crusader, Augustin Cardinal Bea, to head the newly formed secretariat for promoting Christian unity. The secretariat had three purposes: to ensure religious liberty, enhance inter-Christian cooperation and promote dialogue with Judaism. Cardinal Bea was charged with drawing up a document that would speak out against anti-Semitism and the notion of Jews as "deicides." The pope wanted a conciliatory statement stemming from his agonized recognition of the possible role played by religiously motivated anti-Semitism in the success of Hitler's program of exterminating European Jewry.
Cardinal Bea, who had read Sister Rose's doctoral thesis and was inspired by it, said, "It would be impossible for the council to be quiet after the Holocaust of the war years" and made an impassioned appeal before the council "to help cleanse Christian minds of anti-Semitism and lingering Nazi propaganda."
Sister Rose's commitment and tenacity helped make Nostra Aetate a reality and changed Catholic-Jewish relations profoundly.
But she didn't stop there. Sister Rose understood that anti-Semitism is learned and can be deep seated, but can be unlearned. She knew that some Christians held anti-Semitic views because of the church's teaching. She knew that the belief that "the Jews killed Jesus" was the root of anti-Semitism. That is why, I believe, it was important for her to reach out to older students. She shared her own experiences and her efforts to get the Vatican to condemn anti-Semitism, resulting in 1965's Nostra Aetate document, which absolved the Jewish people of collective guilt for the death of Jesus
To be a teacher is one of the noblest professions. Sister Rose's knowledge, passion and sense of right was transferred to her students, especially when she taught about anti-Semitism, the evils of the Holocaust and the extraordinary altruism of some during the Holocaust. Sister Rose's commitment and advocacy helped influence New Jersey to become the first state to mandate Holocaust education in its public schools.
Her passion, determination and fight for goodness and justice were shining lights, banishing anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial into the darkness where they belong. At the rallies for Israel in Washington and New York a few years ago, she stepped to the microphone and said, "If we care about the Shoah, where are we Christians today when again Jews are being killed? Where are we when Israel is being pushed to give up her homeland, to give up Jerusalem, her capital? Never again can we abandon Jews.
At age 84, this indomitable, remarkable woman became a movie star, using another forum from which to spread the message she had preached since her doctoral dissertation influenced Nostra Aetate 40 years earlier and continued to influence subsequent Vatican documents on the teaching of Judaism.
"Sister Rose's Passion," the documentary film of her life and work, was nominated for an Oscar and won other awards. But more importantly, it will be a new teaching tool inspiring countless others far into the future.
Sister Rose has departed this life but her legacy resides in all those she taught and touched. She changed the course of history. She is what we call an Ayshes Chail, a Woman of Valor, who has brought enlightenment, honor, scholarship and pure passion to remembering and teaching about the Holocaust, battling anti-Semitism, challenging the ignorance of prejudice and the teaching of contempt, fighting for Soviet Jewry and championing the cause of Israel.
Sister Rose spent her life shining a light to expose evil and injustice. A gentle and modest person of indomitable spirit and faith, she was also a straight-shooter, always telling it like it was, pulling no punches. When she heard of a problem, she wanted to fix it. Often over the years, I would answer my telephone and hear Sister Rose on the line saying, "Abe, what are we going to do about" this or that. She was always brimming with ideas on how to get a message out, on how to get people involved.
Sister Rose's life shows that teaching the lessons of what hate can do and advocating for what is just can make a difference. As Jews, we believe it is our obligation to pass on to each generation the history and lessons of the past. Sister Rose did just that.
Proverbs 31:29 says it better than any of us: "Well done, thou good and faithful child. Many women have done virtuously, but thou excellest them all."
May her memory be a blessing.