Four women honored for carrying on Sister Rose’s legacy

SOUTH ORANGE, NJ — Seton Hall University’s Sister Rose Thering Fund for Education in Jewish-Christian Studies marked the 10-year anniversary of the death of its namesake at its annual Evening of Roses fundraiser by recognizing four women who similarly made a difference through their advocacy and toil, including one mother who has dedicated herself to combating terrorism following the religiously-motivated murder of her own son more than 20 years ago.

The Evening of Roses, which this year attracted 130 people to the university’s Jubilee Auditorium on May 1, welcomed Devorah Halberstam as its guest speaker in tribute to her decades of experience working as an antiterrorism expert with the police, the FBI and numerous other law enforcement and military agencies. In fact, it was Halberstam’s tireless advocacy for more aggressive counterterrorism measures — in the years before Sept. 11, 2001, made U.S. officials look differently at the likelihood of domestic terrorism — that helped bring about New York State’s antiterrorism law.

Yet despite these accomplishments and the recognition she has already received for them, Halberstam said she is flattered just to be compared to Thering, who was a renowned anti-Semitism activist who helped to establish the scholarship fund at Seton Hall as a way of encouraging teachers to participate in the university’s graduate Program of Jewish-Christian Studies. Halberstam said the nun’s mission of breaking down religious barriers is important to her, since terrorism can only be stopped if people of different backgrounds stand together.

“The one thing that we’re learning in the fight against terrorism is that everybody and anybody (can be affected),” Halberstam told the News-Record in an April 28 phone interview. “The world is its forum, and whether you’re Jewish or Christian, it keeps going from people to people. It’s about destroying all people.

“We need a united effort to fight this,” she continued. “It’s a struggle. I don’t see it happening overnight. I hope it happens in our lifetime. But we need all the help we can get.”

Halberstam joined the fight against terrorism following the death of her 16-year-old son, Ari, who was killed after a Muslim Lebanese immigrant opened fired at a van containing Ari and 14 other Orthodox Jewish boys on the Brooklyn Bridge in 1994. Though she described herself as having been a normal mom without any extensive knowledge of the justice system at the time of the tragedy, Halberstam dove headfirst into researching and promoting better ways of investigating terrorism after the FBI initially ruled her son’s death to be the product of road rage rather than a terrorist act.

As a result of her efforts, the FBI changed its original finding of road rage in 2000 to reflect that Ari was in fact killed by an act of terrorism, with shooter Rashid Baz admitting in 2007 that he targeted the boys because they were Jewish. But Halberstam’s work did not stop there, as her advocacy led to the eventual passage of “Ari’s Law,” an anti-gun trafficking measure, and the New York Anti-Terrorism Act. She has even helped train law enforcement officials in counterterrorism, earning the respect of notables such as former New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly along the way.

Through it all, Halberstam said she has seen an improvement in how terrorism is being investigated and prevented, especially following the World Trade Center attacks. But there is still much she would like to see changed, starting with the passage in all 50 states of antiterrorism laws like the one she helped write for New York. She said she is opposed to the “watered down” USA Patriot Act — referring to the fact that the USA Freedom Act, which restored several expired provisions of the Patriot Act but put restrictions on the bulk collection of telecommunication data from citizens — stressing that police and government agencies must have improved and new laws to help them fight terrorism, not hinder them.

“Talk is talk, but the only way to fight terrorism is to have laws in place,” Halberstam said. “And new laws always need to be created as times change. We’ve never had anything like we have right now, and it probably will get worse before it gets better. Therefore, we need to send out messages that we will not capitulate to the threat of terrorism to this country.”

Halberstam also said it is important to eliminate intolerance through education, as Thering believed. The mother-turned-terrorism expert does this through her work at the Jewish Children’s Museum, which she helped to establish in her son’s name. By teaching people about the Jewish faith when they are young and accepting, she said she hopes to lay the groundwork for more understanding in future generations so that terrorism brought on by hatred can be avoided.

“Whatever (children) learn that one day in passing through the museum might have changed their thinking or might have made them think a certain way,” Halberstam said, adding that she frequently sees young visitors of all different races and ideologies exploring the museum. “It’s important because this is what takes away those feelings of jealousy and hatred and animosity.”

Those behind the fund also believe in the power education has to combat prejudice, which is why they have worked to give approximately $60,000 in scholarships annually to between 18 and 20 teachers per year since the fund was established in 1993. And the roughly 400 educators who studied through the Jewish-Christian Studies program have, in turn, made a difference in the lives of more than 150,000 students by applying what they learned in their own classrooms.

But for the past decade the fund could not have functioned without the support of Marilyn Zirl, who was also honored at the Evening of Roses. Zirl was Thering’s hand-picked successor as administrator of the fund after she worked closely with the nun for several years as her assistant administrator. Now retiring after a total of 16 years with the fund, Zirl told the News-Record she is thankful for the opportunity to collaborate with Thering, whom she described as a “force of nature,” never afraid to speak her mind and always willing to share her sense of humor.

Having the chance to further Thering’s mission of creating interfaith dialog — a cause Zirl herself believes is vital — was also an honor, she said. And she hopes that mission is never forgotten.

“Everyone in the fund should just continue to pursue Sister Rose’s legacy,” Zirl, a former West Orange resident and teacher at West Orange High School, said in an April 28 phone interview. “She’s been gone 10 years already, which seems quite amazing to me. To me, she’s still sitting at the desk opposite mine, saying how quickly time flies.”

Fund board members Mary Vazquez and Ellin Cohen also pursued Thering’s legacy prior to their untimely deaths last year, according to the board’s chairwoman, Deborah Lerner Duane. Speaking with the News-Record, Duane recalled that retired Millburn Middle School teacher Vazquez made the Holocaust an integral part of her language arts curriculum, at one point even holding a prom for Holocaust survivors that she described as simply “magical.” And the chairwoman said Cohen, a longtime Maplewood resident, was very much dedicated to the fund, describing her as a “wonderful, loving, warm person” who always put herself in a position to do good.

“It was such a tragedy,” Duane said in an April 29 phone interview, referring to losing both board members while they were still only in their mid-60s. “It’s just heartbreaking when you lose friends, especially as young as they both were.”

To honor Vazquez and Cohen along with Halberstam and Zirl as “women of valor” was an easy decision for the fund, Duane said. It will also pay tribute to them by continuing their work creating interfaith dialog, which is something Duane knows the value of firsthand. Participating in the Jewish-Christian Studies program at Seton Hall was “the best thing I ever did,” she said, and urged anyone with an interest in religion or history to do the same. Not only will it serve as an intellectual exercise, it will also open up people’s eyes to the reality that the genocide that occurred under the Nazis is still happening today in places like the Sudan, she said.

Once their eyes have been opened, Duane said the teachers will then possess the knowledge to make an impact on how their students see the world.

“Children need to learn this,” Duane said. “There’s a song from ‘South Pacific’ about being taught to hate, and children unfortunately get that message. They need to understand that it’s just as easy to love somebody else.”

Duane said that she has heard from many scholarship recipients that going through the program has altered the way they will teach their classes. One educator in particular described a moment in his class when he noticed a girl drawing stars in a picture that looked remarkably like the Star of David. Though the resemblance was unintentional, the teacher said he was able to explain to her the significance of the Jewish star, something he said he would never have been able to do had he not enrolled in the program.

David Bossman, the fund’s founding executive director and a professor of Jewish-Christian studies, said many of his students have told him that being part of the program was a “transformative” experience for them. Bossman said one former student even returned as a guest speaker just because she felt compelled to give back after learning so much.

Bossman said seeing the program have such an impact is “very gratifying” to him as a professor. But more than that, he said he is happy to know that his work is helping make society a much nicer place, which is what Thering intended all along.

“Bad things happen when people are prejudiced,” Bossman told the News-Record in an April 28 phone interview. “And people are prejudiced when they don’t understand the ‘other.’ They think the ‘other’ is outside their purview. So interreligious dialog helps us to understand people who are different from ourselves, and in that way we eliminate prejudice through awareness and knowledge.”

For more information on the Sister Rose Thering Fund for Education in Jewish-Christian Studies, visit https://www13.shu.edu/academics/artsci/sister-rose-thering/index.cfm.

Photos Courtesy of Bill Blanchard

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