Leonard Beerman dies at 93; pacifist rabbi of L.A.'s Leo Baeck Temple

Leonard Beerman, who died at 93, often angered the Jewish community with his criticism of Israel

Leonard Beerman, founding rabbi of the Westside's Leo Baeck Temple and a pacifist who often stoked anger with his vocal criticism of Israel, died Wednesday at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. He was 93.

The cause was congestive heart failure, said his wife, Joan. He made his last significant public appearance at Leo Baeck in October, giving a Yom Kippur sermon chastising Israel's military for its actions during the summer's Gaza war.

That sermon was typical Beerman, said UCLA history professor David Myers, a close friend and an expert in Jewish studies.

"He never backed down from what he believed," Myers said. "Leonard was widely recognized in the Jewish community for being one of the most courageous and articulate fighters for social justice in the second half of the 20th century and the early part of the 21st.

"He said things that nobody dared to say in a rhetorical style both very easy to listen to and difficult, because of the content."

Beerman was born April 9, 1921, in Altoona, Pa., the son of a homemaker mother from New York and a Lithuanian-born father who worked as a traveling salesman after the Great Depression.

He joined the Marines at the start of World War II. Then in the mid-1940s, while studying for the rabbinate, he lived in Jerusalem and joined the Jewish underground army known as the Haganah during a time of violent clashes with local Arabs.

Those experiences made him an ardent pacifist, almost unthinkable for a Jew in the years just after the Holocaust. "I became a pacifist because of what I had seen," he told The Times in a recent profile. "People transformed to just hating, hating, hating. It is no way for humankind to live."

After returning to the United States and finishing his studies at Cincinnati's Hebrew Union College, Beerman and his wife, Martha, moved to Los Angeles, where in 1949 he became the first full-time rabbi at Leo Baeck, then a small temple that sometimes held services in an Episcopal church.

It didn't take long for him to stand out. Believing that Judaism should be fully engaged with efforts to heal the world, he pushed his congregation to embrace social causes, many of which flew in the face of popular opinion. In the early 1950s, during a period of fervent anti-communism, he prayed for Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, who were executed for espionage.

Leo Baeck eventually became well established, moving in 1963 to a synagogue built for $1 million in Bel-Air. But Beerman kept at his calls for social change.

He advocated for African American civil rights in the wake of the Watts riots. He was one of the most vigorous Jewish voices in the city protesting the Vietnam war. At Beerman's request, 1960s firebrand Tom Hayden spoke at Leo Baeck. So did Cesar Chavez and Daniel Ellsberg.

Going against many in the Jewish community, Beerman refused to support Israel unconditionally. He believed in a two-state solution and diplomacy. "I held firm in my resolve to have an independent voice on Israel," he said this year. At Leo Baeck, he wouldn't allow the Israeli or American flags flown. "Nationalism and faith should not mix," he said.

A deeply intellectual man who often doubted the existence of God, Beerman loved studying in the book-lined office of his Brentwood home. His was fascinated by modern art, poetry and philosophy, and he was an avid tennis player who hit the courts twice a week into his early 90s.

Later in life he faced personal tragedy. Martha, his wife of 41 years, died of a heart problem within days of his 1986 retirement from the temple. In 1993, his granddaughter Kate died unexpectedly. She was 8.

"The darkest hours of my life," he told The Times.

Beerman's second marriage was to Joan, a west Los Angeles psychologist, and the two not only traveled the world together but participated in protests. When he was nearly 80, they were arrested during a Wilshire Boulevard sit-in to support striking hotel workers.

He continued efforts aimed at nuclear disarmament and was a key player in interfaith dialogue aimed at improving relations between the region's Jews, Muslims and Christians. Named rabbi-in-residence at Pasadena's All Saints Episcopal Church, he was a close friend of the church's longtime rector, George Regas.

Muslim leaders such as Maher Hathout and Salam Al-Marayati, leaders of the Muslim Public Affairs Council, were also confidants. "He was a force to be reckoned with," said Al-Marayati. "The connection we had with him could not be dismissed because he was not someone from the fringe. He was from a mainstream, well-established synagogue, speaking with an unquestioned moral voice."

Al-Marayati, Regas and current All Saints Pastor Ed Bacon were Beerman's guests at the temple on Yom Kippur.

The rabbi was in great pain that day, struggling against a body that was growing increasingly frail. Yet the moment he began speaking he became forceful.

Looking out at a packed audience, he chastised Hamas for its violence against Israel. Then, in keeping with his belief that the Jewish nation should claim the moral high ground and not be sucked into war, he saved most of his criticism for the Israel Defense Forces, which he said had showed a "callous disregard" for the lives of Gazans.

As had often been the case, some congregants were angered and even visibly shaken by his words. But the majority of the congregation — including even those opposing his views — rose to give him a standing ovation. It was a first at the normally solemn temple.

"He was a fighter for social justice, for all people, to the end," Myers said. "Yes, he was thoughtful and humble and a pacifist, but he also never stopped standing up for what he believed."

In addition to his wife, Beerman's survivors include daughters Judith Beerman O'Hanlon, Eve Beerman and Elizabeth Beerman Rothbart; stepdaughter Elara Willens; stepson Scott Willens; sister Helene Sternberger; brother Jack Beerman; and six grandchildren.

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