Rabbi Leonard Beerman of Los Angeles, who died December 24 at age 93, was a great fighter for social justice and peace over the last sixty-five years. His lifelong commitment to nonviolence, Beerman explained, came out of his experience in 1947 in Jerusalem, when he joined the Haganah fighting for Israeli independence. “Luckily, I was spared” killing anyone, he told the Los Angeles Times. “And when I came back, 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.”
In 1949 he began working as the first full-time rabbi at Leo Baeck Temple and soon became “one of the most important figures on the social-justice landscape in Los Angeles”, says David Myers, who teaches Jewish history at UCLA and was a close friend of Beerman. He was fearless, even in the face of his own congregation: when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for conspiracy to commit espionage in 1953, Beerman included them on his list of names read on the Sabbath during the Kaddish prayers, which honor the dead—despite angry protests from some.
In the 1960s he was a passionate critic of the Vietnam war; after Watts, he spoke out for black people in LA; after 9-11, he defended Muslims. He was co-founder of the Greater Los Angeles Partnership for the Homeless, and co-chairman of the Jewish Committee on Los Angeles Sweatshops. But he was best known as one of the nation’s most prominent Jewish voices defending Palestinian rights and supporting a two-state solution in the Mideast. He met with Yasir Arafat in Jordan in 1983, and at Leo Baeck he did not allow the Israeli or American flags to be flown. “Nationalism and faith should not mix,” he said.
When Reagan revived the Cold War in the mid-eighties, Rabbi Beerman helped organize the Interfaith Center to Reverse the Arms Race. Michele Willens, whose father Harold was a leading peace activist alongside Beerman, recalled that “Leonard and the Episcopalian Rev. George Regas of Pasadena’s All Saints Church would speak at each other’s entities on a regular basis, hold press conferences, and support pacifist initiatives. The center was considered hugely radical at the time, and both Leonard and Regas initially took heat from their own congregations. But it went on to great success.”
Rabbi Beerman was also an important member of the Nation family. He was a member of the magazine’s Circle of 100, the group of financial backers formed in 1979, and he presented the Nation Institute’s Ron Ridenhour Award in 2007 to Jimmy Carter, declaring that “in the geography of Carter’s conscience there are no borders.” He had been scheduled as a featured speaker on the Nation Cruise this past December, but had to cancel because of poor health.
Over the last decade Rabbi Beerman was part of a small group of Jews in Los Angeles that met regularly to formulate a progressive voice on Israeli politics. David Myers was another. “For the most part,” Myers explained, “it was a loud and unruly bunch in whose midst Leonard would initially remain silent. One wondered whether the great sage had been rendered mute in his advanced years. But then, just as the meeting was about to break up, typically without any consensus, Leonard would begin to speak. In perfectly formed, paragraph-length sentences, he would clarify, summarize, and propel forward the discussion, insisting that we never escape our obligation to speak truth to power. Those in attendance were simply stunned by the clarity of mind and of moral vision.”
His last sermon, on Yom Kippur last October at Leo Baeck temple, made page one of the LA Times: “Another Yom Kippur,” he said. “Another 500 children of Gaza killed by the Israel Defense Forces, with callous disregard for their lives.”
Despite his courage and fierceness in denouncing injustice, he was a warm and modest person with a twinkle in his eye and wonderful sense of humor. Victor Navasky described him as “a soft-spoken and frequently funny crusader for peace and sanity.” Richard Kletter, a writer living in LA, called Rabbi Beerman “a force for goodness in the world.” That’s the way I will remember him.