Tributes have been paid to one of the world’s leading pioneers of interfaith relations, Sir Sigmund Sternberg, after he passed away at the age of 95.
Hungary-born Sir Sigmund co-founded the Three Faiths Forum in 1997 well before the explosion in activity to bring faiths together in this country, and was also considered one of the fathers of Anglo-Jewry partly as a result his “transformational” work with Reform Judaism.
But it is probably his work in improving strained relations between the Jewish community and the Catholic Church that he will be most remembered around the globe. He played a central role in efforts to remove a Carmelite convent established at Auschwitz and in the very first visit by a Pope to a synagogue – by Pope John Paul II – that has become a regular feature of subsequent papacies.
Sir Sigmund – who fled Nazi-occupied Europe to the UK in 1939 – made his money in the metals industry before focusing on his interfaith and other charitable work in later life.
Rabbi Laura Janner-Klausner, Senior Rabbi to Reform Judaism said: “The entire Reform Jewish community of the United Kingdom mourns on the sad news of the death of Sir Sigmund Sternberg KC*SG. Sir Sigmund’s contribution to Reform Judaism was transformational. He dedicated a great part of his life to serving the Jewish community and the vital cause of dialogue and interfaith relations around the world. We are grateful for his enormous generosity and inspirational leadership. May his memory be a blessing”.
Board of Deputies president Jonathan Arkush said: “Sir Sigmund Sternberg was one of our community’s most tireless workers and generous benefactors. His association with the Board of Deputies went back many years and his support has been invaluable. His work in for the Council of Christians and Jews and later the Three Faiths Forum energised interfaith activity in the UK while the Sternberg Centre for Judaism that he established will stand as a lasting legacy to his vision. His energy, enthusiasm, talent for organisation and massive charitable efforts will be sorely missed.”
Sir Mick Davis, Chairman of the Jewish Leadership Council said: “Sir Sigmund Sternberg was not only one of the great Jewish philanthropists, he was also a pioneer of global Jewish-Christian relations through his work with the Council of Christians and Jews. His story of arriving in Britain in 1939 from Hungary is a similar one to many of his generation. Through dedication and hard work he succeeded in building his successful business and devoted his life to charitable causes.”
They add that “he was tireless in his pursuit of social justice and will be remembered and missed by the entire community.”
He was awarded a knighthood by the Queen in 1976 and became a papal knight nine years later – the very first to receive the accolade and one of around half a dozen in total. He was also a recipient of the Templeton Prize.
Fellow papal knight Rabbi David Rosen, the former chief rabbi of Ireland, told the Jewish News he “personified some of the greatest transformations that have taken place in and for the Jewish world in our times”.
Describing him as a “true mensch”, he added: “Despite the impression one gets from some of the terrible, sensational and violent aspects of religion that we see currently and which does indeed pose a threat to society; there has never been an era in the history of humankind where there has been so much interfaith collaboration and cooperation.
“For the Jewish community, it was Sir Sigmund and his colleagues of the generation after World War Two and the Shoah who trailblazed that path that many like myself are privileged to follow along today in a new era in interfaith understanding and cooperation.”
Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis paid tribute to Sir Sigmund, saying he was a “was a legendary figure and pioneer in the world of interfaith work, who devoted his life to building greater understanding and respect between faiths. His vision transformed the landscape of interfaith dialogue, recognising that intolerance is a consequence of ignorance. Thanks to his towering personality and leadership skills, better and deeper relations between the Jewish community and other faiths were forged over many years.”
The Council of Christians and Jews also led tributes to Sir Sigmund. They said they are “saddened”, adding that “his contribution to interfaith dialogue, especially between the Abrahamic faiths in the United Kingdom, was arguably the most important of recent decades.”He was for many years a trustee of the Council of Christians and Jews later stepping aside to develop further work with the Muslim community. However, he remained interested in the work of CCJ and there are many individuals who can testify that they only became involved in our work through his encouragement. As President and then Patron of the ICCJ he was instrumental in establishing its Abrahamic Forum.
Honoured many times for his work in interfaith relations, perhaps his most outstanding investiture was as a Papal Knight. This demonstrated the high regard with which he was held by all those who benefitted from his engagement.
Bishop Michael Ipgrave, Chair of CCJ, paid tribute to of Sir Sigmund as “An incomparable champion of interfaith relations. His work was a shining light in bringing people together, and his legacy is the profound impact it had on people, from school students to Presidents.
As we mourn his loss, we give thanks for his memory and commit ourselves to continuing the work that was dear to him.”
Sir Sigmund wrote about his pride in the work of the Three Faiths Forum four years ago. While the Council of Christians and Jews was already in operation, he and his Three Faoths Forum co-founders Rev Marcus Braybrooke and Dr Zaki Badawi identified a need to involve Muslims in dialogue. He particularly hailed the charity’s work with youngsters in schools and universities.
“I’m very pleased to see the work we started 15 years ago carried on by a new generation of bridge-builders and peace-makers as 3FF brings dialogue and cooperation to new audiences and regions. We have been active in the Middle East for several years and recently expanded onto the European continent with the EU branch of our ParliaMentors programme. I look forward with pride and with confidence to what yet lies ahead for 3FF.”