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PROFILE Intergroup dialogue instills passion in Templeton winner

NEW YORK, March 3 (JTA) — 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 believed to be anti-Semitic to move a controversial Carmelite convent off the grounds of Auschwitz. He’s a 77-year-old workaholic who organized the first-ever papal visit to a synagogue. Outside of Great Britain and interfaith circles, he is not well known. But this week, as Sir Sigmund Sternberg became the 1998 winner of the prestigious Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion, the world is learning about the quiet but central role that he has played in groundbreaking diplomatic accomplishments in interfaith dialogue. Sitting comfortably in a New York City hotel room this week, poised to receive the award, this small, dignified man cracks a smile: “Old people have to justify their existence; they have to work.” His hard work has paid off once again: As recipient of the Templeton Prize, he also receives $1.23 million, believed to be the largest annual monetary award given. Sternberg is the second Jewish person to win the award. The first was Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, the former Orthodox chief rabbi of Great Britain who received the award in 1991.
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.” “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 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 to resolve the crisis that erupted in the 1980s, when a small group of Carmelite nuns established a convent at the site of the Auschwitz death camp. The convent prompted an international outcry by Jews and others. Quietly and not-so-quietly — activists led by New York Rabbi Avi Weiss even donned concentration camp uniforms to protest at the site — Jews demanded that the convent be removed from the place where so many had been exterminated. The head of the church in Poland, Cardinal Jozef Glemp, was resisting efforts to remove the convent. As the controversy dragged on for years, Sternberg stepped in, contributing to the ultimate resolution of the problem and the convent’s removal in 1993. “Glemp told me that Jews were all-powerful. So I told him, ‘Well I think 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 will move because “I have finally heard the voice of reason.” Sternberg, an active Reform Jew, is loved in many circles: the Catholics, the Muslims, and even after a recent fallout between Reform and Orthodox Jews in England last year, he is on good terms with Britain’s chief rabbi, who is Orthodox. “I don’t know anyone that he does not know or anyone that he does not speak to,” says a colleague who has worked closely with him for 20 years. “And whether it’s a member of his staff or the head of state, the message is always the same — our shared, common humanity.” Sternberg says his childhood memories of interreligious strife in Hungary laid the foundation for his commitment to cooperation and understanding between the world’s religions. He fled to England with his family in 1939, served in the Civil Defense Corps until the end of World War II, then made his fortune in scrap metal and property. 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, an umbrella organization of 28 dialogue organizations worldwide that he chairs. In 1976 he was recruited to lead his first interreligious dialogue, which he says inspired his activism. Although Orthodoxy is dominant in Britain, it is the Reform movement that boasts the largest Jewish educational and cultural center in Europe. The seven-and-a-half-acre campus — which contains a primary school, a rabbinical training college, an art exhibition, a Jewish museum, an interfaith center and the administrative headquarters of the Reform movement — is appropriately named the Sternberg Center for Judaism. With Sternberg as chairman of its board of trustees, the center receives visitors from major figures in the fields of religion, diplomacy and statecraft. “He is quite an extraordinary phenomenon,” says a member of the staff of the center who asked not to be identified. “No one knows quite how he does it — how he commands the attention and respect of so many important people. “But he has an enormous facility for making contacts and putting people together for the purpose of dialogue and understanding.” Twenty years after Sternberg arrived in Britain, the refugee-turned-magnate was honored with a knighthood by his adoptive — and, no doubt, grateful — 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. To his detractors — and his work could not be counted a success without them — Sternberg has developed too keen an appetite for such honors and the attendant publicity. “Yes, he does enjoy the fact that his work is recognized,” said a friend. “And there is scarcely a country in the world that has not honored him.” Having achieved prodigious success in the area of relations between Jews and non-Jews, one colleague suggested that the challenge now was to establish a dialogue and build bridges between Jews and Jews. “Siggy would love the Sternberg Center to be a point of contact — of coming together — for the entire Jewish community of Britain,” he said. “Given his remarkable achievements, he might just be the man to do it.” But Sternberg, speaking in New York, says that it is not on his current agenda. “I like to stick to what I understand, and to my skills. I may play a role in the background, though. “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.” (JTA correspondent in London Douglas Davis contributed to this report.)