Interfaith activist wins prestigious Templeton Prize

NEW YORK — He's the Hungarian-born British philanthropist who played a critical role in coaxing the Vatican to recognize the state of Israel.

He's the savvy businessman who helped convince a Polish cardinal many thought was anti-Semitic to move a controversial convent out of Auschwitz.

And he organized the first-ever papal visit to a synagogue.

Outside Great Britain, Sir Sigmund Sternberg is not well known. But this week, the world is learning about the 77-year-old workaholic — the 1998 winner of the prestigious Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion,

The prize, named for John Marks Templeton, a Wall Street magnate, is given to an individual who has "helped increase humankind's love of God."

In New York to receive the award, Sternberg said, "Old people have to justify their existence. They have to work."

As winner of the Templeton Prize, the interfaith activist will receive $1.23 million, believed to be the world's largest annual monetary award.

Sternberg is the second Jew to win the award. The first was Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, the late Orthodox chief rabbi of Great Britain who received the award in 1991.

"We all have different concepts of God," Sternberg said during an interview here on Monday. "You have to believe in something. We have to realize that our purpose here is to make the world a more tolerable place."

He says the prize money will go directly to the Sternberg Foundation, which funds his interreligious work.

Known to many as "Siggy," Sternberg recalls with pride his role in helping resolve the crisis that erupted in the 1980s, when a small group of Carmelite nuns established a convent at the Auschwitz death camp.

Jewish activists donned concentration-camp uniforms to protest, demanding that the convent be removed. But Poland's Cardinal Jozef Glemp was reluctant to remove it.

After the controversy had dragged on for years, Sternberg stepped in.

"Glemp told me that Jews were all-powerful. So I told him, `It's the right thing for you to give in, then,'" he recalls.

Weeks later, Sternberg received a letter from Glemp declaring that the convent would move because "I have finally heard the voice of reason."

Sternberg says his childhood memories of interreligious strife in Hungary laid the foundation for his commitment to cooperation and understanding between religions. He fled to England with his family in 1939, and after the war he made his fortune in scrap metal and property. In 1976 he was recruited to lead his first interreligious dialogue, which he says inspired his activism.

Since then, two endeavors have consumed his time and his energies: the Reform movement and interfaith work, primarily through the International Council of Christians and Jews, a network of 28 dialogue organizations that he chairs.

Although Orthodoxy is the dominant Jewish strain in Britain, the Reform movement in that country boasts Europe's largest Jewish educational and cultural center. The center — which comprises a primary school, a rabbinical training college, an art gallery, a Jewish museum, an interfaith center and the administrative headquarters of the Reform movement — is named the Sternberg Center for Judaism.

Twenty years after Sternberg arrived in Britain, the refugee-turned-magnate was honored with a knighthood by his adopted country.

Since then, awards, medals and prizes have poured in from such disparate sources as the Vatican, the governments of Poland, Greece, Germany, Spain, Austria and his native Hungary.

He says that colleagues have suggested that the challenge now is to establish a dialogue and build bridges among Jews. But Sternberg says this is not on his current agenda.

"The most important thing," he says, "is to visit all the various places of worship, Jewish and non-Jewish. Read about the different religions and meet them. We need each other. Jewish numbers are shrinking, while the others are growing."