BERLIN (JTA) — Germany’s Progressive Jewish seminary has given its highest honor to a former anti-apartheid activist with roots in Berlin.
Helen Zille, the prime minister of South Africa’s Western Cape Province, received the annual Abraham Geiger Prize from the Potsdam-based Abraham Geiger College in ceremonies Monday at the Berlin headquarters of the state of Bavaria. Zille also heads the Democratic Alliance Party and is a former mayor of Cape Town.
The award came just as the college signed a new deal with the University of Potsdam, making rabbinical studies a part of the university’s philosophy department.
Zille, 60, grand-niece of the famous German artist and political caricaturist Heinrich Zille (1858-1929), was honored for the "courage and commitment with which she has fought for a democratic South Africa." Zille said she considered the prize "a great honor and an encouragement to keep on going. Social commitment runs in the family."
Reportedly, Zille plans to dedicate the more than $13,000 prize to a scholarship fund for students from South Africa who are accepted into the Geiger College rabbinical program. The first rabbis were ordained there in 2001.
Among the guests at Monday’s ceremony was U.S. Rabbi Stephen Lewis Fuchs, president of the World Union for Progressive Judaism, who was to meet with top German political leaders during his stay. Fuchs’ family came from Leipzig.
During her stay in Berlin, Zille visited the grave of her paternal great-uncle for the first time. Heinrich Zille, who was not Jewish, was known for calling attention to the plight of underprivileged, poor and handicapped people in his drawings. Helen Zille’s parents, who both had Jewish roots, fled Nazi Germany in the 1930s and settled in South Africa.
As a journalist in the 1970s, Zille investigated the 1977 death in police custody of student leader Steve Biko, founder of the Black Consciousness movement.
Also Monday, the University of Potsdam, seat of the Geiger College, renewed its 10-year-old contract with the rabbinical seminary, declaring its intentions to create a Department for Rabbinical Studies within the university’s philosophy faculty.
The ceremonial event was hosted by Horst Seehofer, governor of the state of Bavaria, who delivered the laudatio for Zille. The annual prize, named after one of the founders of liberal Judaism, honors those who have contributed to promoting pluralism.