-- Rabbi Leonard I. Beerman
Of the few larger-than-life figures I have been fortunate to know, none may loom larger than Leonard Beerman, who passed away today at the age of 93. Our paths crossed at Death Penalty Focus, where we served on the Board of Directors together for many years. But while the death penalty has been my singular focus for social justice work, it was just one of many for Leonard.
A pacifist, Leonard nevertheless served in the Marines during World War II (although he didn't see combat) and then in the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary group, prior to the founding of Israel. He described this latter experience and its impact on him in a recent profile in the Los Angeles Times:
Thankfully, my group never really got into violent confrontations. [But] what if I had encountered someone? I would have been a part of the violence, would have done it out of fear that engulfed me in that moment, out of concern to support my comrades. And I would have lost all sense of the moral implications of what I was doing. . . . Luckily, I was spared. And when I came back, the experience had cemented my views. I became a pacifist because of what I had seen: People transformed to just hating, hating, hating. It is no way for humankind to live.Leonard was the founding rabbi at Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles in 1949, and although he retired in 1986, he continued to return to the bimah to deliver a passionate Yom Kippur sermon every year. In what would prove to be his last one this year, he questioned the tepid Jewish American response to Israel's actions in Gaza: "Another Yom Kippur. Another 500 children of Gaza killed by the Israel Defense Forces, with callous disregard for their lives . . . [and] hardly a word found its way out of a Jewish mouth to express the slightest concern about the way Israel was exercising its right to defend itself, the appalling human suffering."
This was vintage Beerman. For decades Leonard has fearlessly challenged not just his congregation, but all of us to question our biases, to struggle against injustice and repression, and to pursue peace. He was one of the first rabbis to speak out against the Vietnam War. He invited Daniel Ellsberg to the temple while Ellsberg was awaiting trial. Cesar Chavez was another invited guest.
Civil rights, racial equality, nuclear disarmament, workers' rights, a two-state solution for Israel, and the end to the death penalty. Leonard tirelessly took on these issues and more with deep wisdom, humility, passion and eloquence.
With Leonard Beerman's inspiration, now it is our turn. May his memory be a blessing to us all.