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University remembers Rabbi Signer

Madeline Buckley | Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Friends, students and colleagues commemorated the life of Rabbi Michael Signer, the Abrams Professor of Jewish Thought and Culture at Notre Dame who died Saturday Jan. 10, at a memorial service Monday.

Many speakers remembered Signer’s spirited personality and lauded his work studying the Christian and Jewish faiths and its impact on the University and the wider community.

“You acquired an empathy for all things Catholic, even though you were not Catholic,” Theology Department Chair John Cavadini said in a eulogy for Signer.

Although the two disagreed on the fundamental beliefs of their religions, Cavadini said he always felt comfortable engaging in theological discussions with Signer. Signer considered others beliefs with respect, even if he did not agree, he said.

“Even though you did not believe in it, you gave affectionate statements of disagreement,” he said. “That was the greatness of your soul.”

Cavadini joked that Signer spoke many languages, and one of them was Catholic.

“You knew the difference between Jesuits and Dominicans,” he said.

Signer studied the complicated relationship between Catholicism and Judaism and inspired positive dialogue about the differences, Cavadini said. He said when Signer was hired, he knew Notre Dame was not only getting a scholar, but also a teacher.

University President Fr. John Jenkins said the University was lucky to have Signer as a faculty member.

“He allowed us to build bridges both spiritually and intellectually between the great Jewish religion and this Catholic University,” he said.

Jenkins said Signer made the school a richer and better place and participated fully in Notre Dame life.

“In his robust, generous way, he was completely part of the community,” he said “We will always remember him in gratitude. I give thanks for his life.”

Theology professor Fr. Richard McBrien said bringing Signer to Notre Dame was one his “final and finest” achievements when he was head of the theology department. Signer was a professor, director of the Notre Dame Holocaust project and a fellow in the University’s Medieval Institute, he said.

But McBrien also remembered casual conversations with Signer in addition to his intellectual legacy.

“Michael and I had a common interest in film,” he said. “We would give our personal reviews and recommendations to each other.”

Fort Wayne-South Bend Bishop Fr. John D’Arcy said Signer will be missed by both the wider community and Notre Dame in a letter that was read at the service.

“The presence of such a distinguished Jewish scholar at Notre Dame …is among the highest significance,” D’Arcy said.