Kristallnacht was in many ways the start of the Holocaust.
Of course there was the anti-Semitism that sparked it, the church teachings that fueled it, and the meticulous planning that structured it, but the purest terror, the fire and destruction and smashed glass and destroyed synagogues and shattered lives, was unleashed first on that night, November 9, 1938, exactly 80 years ago.
Temple Sinai of Tenafly will commemorate that horror as it commemorates the contribution of an American nun, Sister Rose Thering, who lived in New Jersey for decades and whose hard work, determination, and overwhelming goodness had a great deal to do with the changes the Roman Catholic church made in its relationship to Jews.
Alan Silberstein of Tenafly, who was born in Munich to Holocaust survivors just after the war, has devoted much of his time and energy to Holocaust education — a bland way of saying that he has expended a great deal of passionate attention on exploring and presenting information explaining what happened and how to keep it from happening again. As he worked on that monumental self-assigned task, he met Sister Rose Thering.
Much has resulted from that work; he will talk about a small part of it on Friday, November 9 — tonight.
The evening will be unusual in that Temple Sinai members will be joined by congregants from Tenafly’s Our Lady of Mount Carmel. About 60 people from Sinai and Mount Carmel will have Shabbat dinner at the shul, and then Mr. Silberstein will speak at the services set to follow.
“I wanted to learn what made her so highly motivated to fight anti-Semitism, and about the contribution she made to changing church policy,” Mr. Silberstein said. “There is no question that the Holocaust was the result of the Catholic church’s teaching about Jews. Of course, a lot of other things also had to happen to get to the Holocaust, and there were a lot of other kinds of anti-Semitism, but the Catholic church’s portrayal of Jews as the killers of Christ was crucial.”
The church also taught the idea that Judaism was superseded by Catholicism; until Christ was born and died, Jews were God’s chosen people, but after that Catholics took their place as beloved by God.
Sister Rose was born in Wisconsin in 1920; she entered a convent in 1938, and her order supported her as she earned a Ph.D. in education. She was brilliant and cared deeply for justice, and she did not always keep her mouth shut; her intellectual influence was far-reaching. It was Sister Rose, Mr. Silberstein said, who was at least in part — probably in large part — responsible for the change in Catholic theology that took Jews from the status as the church’s father to its older brother. That, he said, “is the understanding that they were not to be succeeded by the Catholics but instead could coexist. Older brother is the newer term, and it came out of Nostra Aetate,” the church-changing documents that the Second Vatican Council produced in 1965.
“When the Vatican council started, in the early 60s, the idea was that they would include Jews in the process” — itself a revolutionary idea — “so that they could convert them. It was the view that you do better with honey than with vinegar. If you stopped punishing the Jews for their wickedness, they would be more likely to convert,” Mr. Silberstein said. Sister Rose Thering was not solely responsible for the sea change that followed — some of that also came from “converted Jews who said, ‘You can’t say that about my parents,’” he continued. “The process that came out of Nostra Aetate allowed people to come to the idea that Jews were equally sons of God, and then we could start exchanging ideas.”
Sister Rose went to Seton Hall University in 1968; she became part of the religion department and the organization that eventually took on her name. She fought for Holocaust education and for Israel. She died in 2006 as a Catholic protector and beloved friend of the Jewish people.
Mr. Silberstein knew her; “she taught me the importance of dialogue, and of people knowing each other as human beings. That’s where I got my passion for this kind of dialogue.”
Jordan Millstein is Temple Sinai’s senior rabbi.
He said that the program morphed from a Temple Sinai-only evening to its present form when the planning committee proposed that it be interfaith. He went first to Father Dan O’Neill, who leads Our Lady of Carmel, because both Kristallnacht and Sister Rose have to do with the Catholic church. “And then we came up with the idea of Shabbat dinner together, before the service, with both synagogue and church members, so we invited them for dinner.
“Father O’Neill is terrific, and his receptivity is wonderful.” In fact, Father O’Neill and his parishioners were so receptive to the idea that the synagogue decided not to open it to more congregations, but instead to concentrate on the relationships between these two, Sinai, and Our Lady of Carmel.
The timing also was more terrifyingly appropriate than he could have imagined. “When we planned it, we had no idea what would happen in Pittsburgh,” Rabbi Millstein said. “It just amplifies the significance of what we are doing.”
Rabbi Millstein worries about how interfaith experiences seem to have faded from the national consciousness, and now we need it. “I am concerned that the Jewish community, both nationally and locally, has devalued this kind of work,” he said. “We used to do much more of it, and it is a mistake for us to think that it is less important than it used to be.
“We need to build our relationships with our neighbors. We cannot be passive about it any more. We Jews have taken so much for granted. We have been so focused — and absolutely we should be so focused — on trying to stamp out every form of extremism and anti-Semitism, but we also should build relationships with our neighbors, and help them understand who we are.”
Why have Jews pulled away from those relationships? “I think that part of it is that when people feel comfortable, when they feel that there aren’t any real issues or concerns, then they tend to say it’s not necessary to put any energy into it,” Rabbi Millstein said. “I also think that in recent years, the Jewish community has tended to look more inward, and to be more strident about Israel. That is great, but we also have to think about the relationships we have with others.
“This is simply reaching out and finding a very receptive community.”
The November 9 service also will feature members of the two congregations lighting six candles in memory of the six million, and Peggy Kabakow, who is very active both in Sinai and the larger Jewish community, will talk. She was a child in Germany during Kristallnacht, and she will tell her family’s story, Rabbi Millstein said. The service, set for 7:30, is open to the community, he added.