Roast Yields More Light Than Heat : Event Kicks Off Celebrations for Retired Rabbi Beerman

Times Staff Writer

His congregants had come to roast Leonard Beerman, but in good conscience they could manage little more than a gentle searing. Suggestions, for example, that the temple might raise funds by selling "I Love My Founding Rabbi" bumper stickers and six-inch plastic replicas of their rabbi, suitable for either dashboard or refrigerator door.

But when all is said and done, planners acknowledged, "It's hard to be nasty to a person like Leonard."

Officially, Beerman retired Oct. 1 after 37 years as rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple. But the honors continue, honors that began with the roast and a weekend of celebration at the temple in November. Beerman calls it "a veritable orgy of commemoration."

The culminating event will be tonight's tribute dinner sponsored by the Interfaith Center to Reverse the Arms Race, of which he is co-founder.

Peace and Justice Fund

A turnout of 1,000 is expected for the $150-a-plate event at the Century Plaza, a fund-raiser to establish the Leonard I. Beerman Peace and Justice Fund.

The festivities are to begin at 6:30 p.m. and it is likely that Beerman will arrive early. His proclivity for being on schedule is such that he has been known to have his wife, Martha, time his sermons as he delivered them, waving her watch if he lingered too long in the pulpit.

Perhaps it is this sensitivity to timing that guided him in his decision to step down as spiritual leader of the 650-family Leo Baeck congregation, a congregation that he had nurtured from its infancy and had molded into what is sometimes referred to as "one of the few temples with a foreign policy."

At 65, physically fit and youthful, Beerman might have stayed on indefinitely. He had had second thoughts about retirement, he said, after looking up the definition in his Webster's. "It said something about withdrawal from society. That's not what I had in mind."

What he has in mind is to plunge even more fully into the life of the community. He reasons, "I have one more act of my life to live" and he wants to be free of "the responsibility of caring for a congregation" so that he can work for the things he holds most important--peace and justice and an equitable distribution of the world's goods.

Former Associate Rabbi Sanford Ragins, Beerman's successor, was installed in the senior rabbi's office at Leo Baeck and, on a recent morning, Beerman was settling into his new office, a cheerful niche created from patio space. Here, he will do some studying and "see troubled members of the congregation who want to talk to me."

Leonard Beerman is not rabbi emeritus. He explained that his congregation, which has always prided itself on its independence, "felt emeritus was too conventional." So, he takes into retirement the title of founding rabbi.

His relationship with the Leo Baeck congregation, which he calls "very rare," dates back to 1949 when, as a seminarian at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Beerman was one of 11 candidates invited by the forming congregation to interview for the position of rabbi.

"I didn't know anything about being a rabbi," he said. "I was interested in ideas." So was this congregation, as it turned out.

He had heard that Jews in Los Angeles played a lot of bridge, so before coming West he learned to play bridge. He had heard that novelist Irving Stone was a member of the congregation, so, on the train West, he read "Lust for Life."

His first meeting with the congregation was in a church, rented for the night, at Olympic and Crescent Heights boulevards. "They made it look good," he said, "like there was a congregation of about 100." It was, he reflects, a "curious assortment"--Eastern liberals who had not found a spiritual home in Los Angeles, shopkeepers, a few moneyed people, about 27 families in all.

From the start, Beerman said, "We liked each other." He had the job.

Humble Beginnings

The temple was to have many homes during its humble beginnings--an Episcopal church on Carthay Circle, a former Canadian Legion hall near San Vicente and La Cienega, a defunct Culver City theater. In April, 1963 it moved to its present home, built for $1 million in Sepulveda Pass at the foot of Bel-Air.

Leo Baeck's congregation is predominantly from the Westside, with a disproportionate number of professionals, and Beerman was aware from the first that he was "the bearer of a dark secret"--that Judaism is not a religion designed for the well-to-do but "for those who have trouble sleeping at night."

Sandy Ragins put it another way, "It's very easy to be pious in Bel-Air"--and Beerman has never let them forget that.

Beerman has always believed that "a major function of religion is to discomfort the comfortable and to sow a seed of endless discontent."

A synagogue, Beerman says, is not about worship "in splendid isolation." He observed that every Jewish sanctuary has a window, a reminder that the synagogue is meant to be not a retreat, not a place to ponder values in the abstract, but "a window on the world."

In the view of some, Beerman opened that window too far. They felt that a place of worship was not the proper sphere for political activism.

Leo Baeck, named for a rabbi who lived in Hitler's Germany, was one of the first temples where the relationship between American Jews and Israel was openly debated. Early on, the synagogue was involved in anti-Vietnam activities, giving counseling to conscientious objectors. Cesar Chavez has spoken from Beerman's pulpit. So have Daniel Ellsberg, just before his Pentagon Papers trial--"I really stirred up a lot of people," Beerman said--and Tom Hayden, fresh from his SDS days. Beerman has shared that pulpit with Palestinians, Israeli Arabs and Jews.

Controversial Rabbi

He laughed and said, "We even had Meyer Kahane (the controversial right-wing rabbi) when no other synagogue would give him a hearing . . . I left town after arguing for his right to speak here."

Beerman holds the conviction that, in the Middle East, there must be "justice for both Jews and Arabs, for Israelis and Palestinians," both because it is just and because it will ensure survival of the Jewish state. He has been publicly denounced for that stance; once, 69 rabbis signed a letter of criticism printed in the Jewish press.

And his relationship with his own congregation has not been without conflict, he acknowledged--"I remember people storming out of my synagogue during the Vietnam days" and on those occasions when he would address "our obligation to Palestinian Arabs."

There have always been, as well, those who do not go along with Beerman's commitment to ending the nuclear arms race. Still, he said, "There has never been a mass movement, a major congregational conflict."

In his farewell sermon on Oct. 5, Beerman spoke of the need to move on to something new. When he was 60, he said, he had begun to feel something of what Sartre had experienced, "unsure of what I wanted to do with the rest of my life, a traveler without a ticket . . . "

Now, he said, he has a destination.

His gift to his congregation is a legacy of caring. Attorney Alex Brucker, who acknowledges political and philosophical differences with his rabbi, said he belongs to the temple only because Beerman "forces me to rethink my own views." And, he added, "I happen to love him dearly."

Suzy Marks, a congregant and an anti-nuclear activist, was recalling that during the war in the Middle East Beerman "would say prayers for the Palestinians." She smiled and said, "Leonard made it possible for most of us to grow up."

Sandy Ragins, who calls Beerman "my mentor," the rabbi he wanted as a seminarian to emulate, observed, "Leonard is not as outrageous as he once was." Perhaps, he suggested, both time and his congregation have caught up with him.

Beerman agreed, "It all seems so tepid now."

Leonard Beerman did not come to the rabbinate through some sort of predestination. Far from it. He was born in Altoona, Pa., the town where the cars for the Pennsylvania Railroad were manufactured, and his father, a Lithuanian immigrant, was in the notions business.

Beerman grinned and said, "I've always said I've dealt in notions, too. I've had some glorious notions."

When he was 6, the family moved to Owosso, Mich., near Flint, where for 10 years his father managed a department store. But when the Depression hit, the elder Beerman's salary was cut to $17 a week and, to make ends meet, the family moved back to Altoona to live with relatives.

In time, the family moved to State College, Pa., so Leonard and his two younger siblings would have an opportunity to go to college. At Penn State, Beerman remembered, "I had a voracious appetite for learning, a passion to study, but I didn't know what I wanted to do with myself." He discarded ideas of becoming an accountant and wound up as a history-literature-philosophy major. He still didn't know what he wanted to do with himself.

A counselor advised him, "As a Jew, I would have limited opportunities to teach on a university level," noting that, while young Beerman was bright, he was "no genius."

Further confused, Beerman decided in 1940 to take time off from college and "bum around the country" for a while. "I had a premonition that war was coming and I'd get killed in that war." So, at 19, he set out to see America--with $5 in his raincoat pocket, a typewriter and one suitcase. For seven months he hitchhiked from town to town, "begging for food as I went," sleeping on courthouse steps and in Salvation Army shelters.

Found His Way to Flint

Eventually, he found his way to Flint and landed a job in a converted spark-plug factory that was turning out machine guns under the Lend-Lease program. There were 5,000 workers and, he said, "I was the only Jew." The "virulent anti-Semitism" he encountered for the first time led him to the Flint public library where he would spend hours reading Jewish history, philosophy and literature.

For the first time, he said, "I began to feel my natural interest could find a focus . . . maybe the rabbinate was a possibility."

In 1944, having graduated from Penn State and served a year's enlistment in the Marine Corps, an experience that as a pacifist he found "an enormous source of confusion," Beerman took a theological deferment and entered Hebrew Union College as a seminarian.

It was not to be a smooth road to the rabbinate. After four years of the six-year program, he said, "I'd become disenchanted. I had always had a problem dealing with God. My best friend said, 'You can't become a rabbi. You don't believe in God.' I said, 'You're right.' So I went to the library looking for God. I found a God I could accept in the works of (Baruch) Spinoza," a 17th-Century Dutch-born Jew who espoused pantheism.

In Spinoza's philosophy, Beerman found "the substratum that undergirded all things," a concept of God as all the forces of the universe. "I never asked, 'How do you pray to such a God?' " As an agnostic, he said, he came to understand that "what was important was to try to cultivate the experience of God. There is no proof for God's existence in the Bible so the question is, 'What is the is ?' "

Still struggling with whether he should become a rabbi, Beerman had become politically radical and decided to go to Jerusalem (which was then Palestine) and, under the GI Bill, study at Hebrew University. He and Martha, his wife of two years, boarded an unreconverted troop ship bound for the Middle East.

Beerman had been at Hebrew University only a month when, in November of 1947, the United Nations partitioned Palestine into Jewish and Arab states and the Beermans became caught up in war. In violation of British law, which forbid Jews to arm themselves, both Leonard and Martha joined the Jewish underground army, the Haganah. Arab gangs were infiltrating Jewish neighborhoods and, Beerman said, "it was our job to go out and ambush them."

The kibbutzim were under siege and Jews were being trained for the greater violence that was coming. Beerman, who'd always questioned whether his pacifism was in reality "a creature of fear as much as conviction," now knew: "Being a part of killing people convinced me at last that it was something genuine." In February, 1948, during a lull in the fighting, Leonard and Martha Beerman came home.

The experience had given him, he said, "a stronger feeling of identity with all Jews. I felt a deeper attachment to the Jewish people--and a desire to serve, but not in isolation." He also gained "a more intensive love of the Hebrew language," which was to make his studies more vital.

Eighteen months later, he graduated from Hebrew Union College and they drove West, headed for Los Angeles.

The Leo Baeck congregation loves and admires its founding rabbi, but in its view a rabbi is not for placing on a pedestal. It was in this spirit that the recent roast at the temple was conceived as an evening of reminiscence and irreverence.

An old friend, retired New Haven Rabbi Robert Goldberg, recalled undergraduate days at Hebrew Union when Goldberg was kept awake by pianist Beerman playing the first three minutes of "Rhapsody in Blue," over and over "and not too well."

There were tears and laughter and, at evening's end, a plastic watch for Beerman. And, it was duly noted that, although Beerman had retired, his philosophy of more-is-too-much would still prevail. It was then announced that the temple would have to be vacated early the following weekend because a themed Bar Mitzvah, "Raise the Titantic," was scheduled and "they need to start flooding the social hall."

(This is a man who keeps in the living room of his Westwood house a grill from a 1947 Rolls-Royce. It is an objet d'art, and more. He explained, "There are three things I've always wanted all at once--to be able to afford a Rolls Royce, to be able to drive one without being embarrassed"--and to still not want one.)

No one was having more fun than Beerman but, before bidding one and all to join him for the ice cream social in the rear of the hall, he reminded them of their obligation to spread their laughter and love "out into the broken world that we live in."

Beerman's world is an ecumenical world. He is a man of many interests, a tennis player, a lover of Shakespeare, a baseball buff. And his passion for ice cream is such that he brings to a conversation about the relative merits of competing brands of chocolate chip some of the intensity he would bring to a debate on nuclear disarmament. (For the record, he prefers Graeters of Cincinnati--"somehow the chips stay soft.")

He does not share the preoccupation of some Jews with what they perceive as a threat posed by dilution of Jewry. That is not the important issue, he said--what is important is that Jews not lose sight of their obligation to show "what outrages are being perpetrated against human beings" of all faiths and beliefs.

"Mere physical survival is not enough," he said. "It has to be survival for a purpose. Judaism is not an annuity. It is a mandate."

In a time when society is "urging people to be concerned with the development of themselves," he said, "it's my conviction that without the dimension of obligation . . . I can't become fully human."

He has been blessed, he said, with a congregation that has "permitted me to be myself. I think the theme song of the American clergy has too frequently been, 'As You Desire Me.' "

He has made mistakes, he acknowledged, such as his refusal to publicly denounce the Soviets for their abuse of Soviet Jews. He had been focused on the broader issue, his hopes for peace, but, he says now, "I was wrong"--one did not have to negate the other.

Beerman appears to be a man who thrives on conflict but, he insists, "I don't enjoy it. I am often reluctant to go out to meet it."

On the eve of "the third act" of his life, he was reflective, almost morose. After almost 40 years as a rabbi, he had not yet come to terms with the finiteness of life, he could still offer the bereaved no explanation for death except that "this is part of the deal." He paused and said, "I do essentially see life as being lonely and tragic. There's kind of a dark thing in my life . . . it gives a certain sadness to me."

There have been times during the past 37 years, Beerman acknowledged, when he imagined he would be leaving Leo Baeck Temple and moving on. "It wasn't that I was blissfully happy here. I've often thought of leaving. I've thought of leaving the rabbinate many times. I have thought I've had it too easy all these years, this sense that I've been too privileged, living in this environment of friendship and respect.

"And that's not the way to end things."

Once, he was tempted by an offer from a New York congregation but, he said, "I hadn't counted on the enormous opposition of my wife and three daughters."

Once, he was invited to interview for the position of dean of Hebrew Union College but, he said, "I had reached a certain stage of either wisdom or cynicism" that enabled him to understand that change for its own sake "was not going to make me any more fulfilled or happy," that those things come from within.

And, he realized, "I really didn't want to give up this place."

Now, in retirement, he talks about new challenges. "I'd like to do some teaching," as a public school volunteer in a neglected area. He wants to "work more deeply on the issue of reversing the nuclear arms race--and I want to be more actively engaged in the problem of the homeless in Los Angeles."

And, he added, "I want to spend more time with my grandchildren (a boy, 4, and a girl, 19 months), while they still like having me around."

It seems appropriate that Leonard Beerman will be introduced tonight by George Regas, rector of All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena and the man he calls "my dearest friend in the community." Regas and Beerman, together with Harold Willens, in 1980 founded the Interfaith Center to Reverse the Arms Race.

Beerman and Regas first met in the fall of 1967 during a peace rally in Exposition Park, where both had been asked to speak. Regas recalls the "deep anger" of the crowd protesting the Vietnam war, the radical action of two Navy captains in uniform carrying a casket draped with a Viet Cong flag, the burning of an American flag. And, he said, "I can still see Leonard Beerman standing with dignity before that unruly mob. I can still feel the power of his gentle spirit, captivating and empowering that crowd."

They have been friends now for nearly 20 years, Regas said, and "it's never been part of our agenda that we tried to change the other person or convince the other person that there was a more enlightened position. I think that the deeper we've gone to the center of our own traditions, Jew and Christian, the closer we've grown as brothers. We've both been enlightened."

Beerman, he said, "has really given his life to those things that I believe in with the greatest passion, peace and justice and the ability to make a difference in the kind of world we have . . .

"Leonard has spent a lifetime trying to leave the world different, and he has."

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