United States Sen, Robert Menendez (D-NJ) visited last weekend to in which he expressed concern about growing anti-Semitism and racism. The lecture was part of the Sister Rose Fund for Education in Jewish-Christian Studies.
Speaking in front of Holocaust survivors, World War II veterans, students and faculty members, Menendez spoke of the importance of Holocaust education, interfaith dialogue and the legacy of the late Sister Rose Thering.
Menendez, who was born to immigrant parents in Union City in 1954 and raised Catholic, recalled watching Sister Rose’s career from afar and credited her with inspiring much of his work as a legislator. He called Rose “a luminary, an incredible asset to the Catholic faith and a person to whom I have had incredible respect and admiration.”
“I am concerned about the rise in anti-Semetism,” said Menendez. “I am concerned about those who deny that the Holocaust had ever existed. I am concerned about the hateful words because the road between hateful words and hateful actions is rather short. It seems to me that one of the lessons is that we must not simply let those actions go by without responding to them fearlessly. To me, that is being part of allowing those to engender [an] environment in which hatred can be acted on.”
As a state senator, Menendez drafted New Jersey’s first hate crime bill, which was prompted by the discrimination and acts of violence directed towards the Indian-American community. He also sponsored the Simon Wiesenthal Holocaust Education Act, meant to bring resources to education institutions that do not provide a Holocaust education and genocide prevention curriculum.
He said he is concerned about growing anti-Hispanic rhetoric that is threatening the immigrant population as well. He cited cases in which legal United States citizens have been unlawfully detained on questions of their immigration status.
Sister Rose, who passed away in 2006, helped foster a continuing dialogue between Catholics and Jews “[at] a time when Catholic teachings showed contempt towards Jews and Judaism,” said Menendez. She helped undo “centuries of mischaracterizations to create a mutual sense of fairness and respect.”
“I have taken her blessing of respect among all peoples to heart and believe that history must be our guide, Menendez continued as part of the lecture. “As a person of Hispanic origin, I understand the pitfall of misunderstanding between ethnic groups. What is needed is more than tolerance. The word tolerance connotes a general acceptance but not a true understanding. We cannot just tolerate each other; we must respect our differences and celebrate the diversity of [the] contributions we can individually and collectively make to the common good.”
Sister Rose was born in Wisconsin in 1920 and first came to Seton Hall in 1968. There, she established an outreach program for the university’s Jewish-Christian Studies program. She made over 50 trips to Israel from 1972 on, taking students to the country to learn about the Holocaust and modern Israel. She was known to wear a necklace with a Star of David and a cross fused together.
“Her vision is one of respect for others, of being proactive in stamping out hate and providing that future generations will learn from the mistakes of the past,” said Menendez.
According to Menendez, Israel is a legitimate state and should be supported and defended against those, like President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, who have called for its destruction.
After the lecture, many faculty members in the audience took turns sharing memories of Sister Rose. Naomi Wish, university faculty member and the Director of the Center for Public Service for the Sister Rose Thering Fund, discussed her relationship with Sister Rose.
“One thing that we can do is to support her legacy by doing two things: One is to educate ourselves, both Christians and Jews, to really educate ourselves on the history of current political topics,” said Wish. “Second of all… [is to] raise enough money [for the fund] to support what she really cared about… understanding amongst Catholics and Jews.”
During the reception, Jewish-Christian Studies student Kibwe Miller, 34, echoed Menendez’s concern about growing hostility between different ethnic groups.
“I hope [my degree] will be a means to build bridges between all faith-based people,” said Miller. “That’s the only way we can have a better world… I just want to learn as much as I can and share that with whoever is willing to listen.”
The lecture marked the first for the Dr. Marcia Robbins-Wilf Lecture series. The series is named after Dr. Marcia Robbins-Wilf, a trustee of the Sister Rose Thering Fund. She endowed the lecture series in 2009. Her vision for the series is to present meaningful speakers and programs that will further the work of the late Sister Rose, whose lifelong efforts built important bridges of understanding, compassion and trust between Jews and Christians.
“It’s important that someone of prominence, like the senator, is kicking [the series] off, “said Paul Gibbons, Chairman of the Board for the Sister Rose Thering Fund for Education in Jewish-Christian Studies. “Its purpose is to keep the public aware of Rose’s legacy and her efforts. It’s to honor her and to keep her work going.”
According to Gibbons, the series has been endowed for years and there will be many more lectures to come.