Great Read: At 93, Rabbi Leonard Beerman still stirs passions with pacifist views
Racked by pain, the 93-year-old rabbi walked shakily to the lectern to give his sermon on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. Then his spine straightened. His gaze grew firm.
“Another Yom Kippur,” he said. “Another 500 children of Gaza killed by the Israel Defense Forces, with callous disregard for their lives.”
Tension rippled through the Jewish congregants seated hip to hip inside one of Los Angeles’ most prominent synagogues.
Rabbi Leonard Beerman criticized the militant group Hamas for launching thousands of rockets into Israel, sparking fear and havoc. But in a calm yet insistent voice, he saved most of his ire for his own people. Where among American Jews were the critics of Israel’s actions in the Gaza Strip this summer?
“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,” he said.
It was vintage Leonard Beerman: ever ready to stir passions, no matter the time or place.
For more than half a century, he had addressed the congregation like this, an ardent pacifist unafraid to challenge what he felt was unjust.
There had been times when some worshipers at Leo Baeck Temple, where he’d been the founding rabbi in 1949, had walked out in protest.
Not this time.
This time, everyone stayed. It might be the last sermon of the rabbi’s life.
A few weeks after his Yom Kippur sermon, Beerman sat in a wheelchair in his Brentwood home. He’d just gotten out of the hospital. He wasn’t sure how much longer he had. But he wanted to talk.
“It’s funny,” he said. “I have never been a particularly sentimental person, but this is a time when I am finding myself looking back.”
There was still a glint in his eye. His mind, when not clouded by medication, remained sharp. But his body was growing increasingly unreliable. He had a balky heart. His nerves sent out shards of intermittent pain.
The human condition, particularly universal frailty, had become a comfort.
“To know that the pain I am feeling is a pain that has been shared by so many over the ages is to know that I am not alone,” he said.
He winced. The shards.
“Should we keep going, rabbi?” a reporter asked.
The son of a homemaker and a traveling salesman, Beerman grew up in small-town Michigan. When he and his wife, Martha, came to Los Angeles for the job at Leo Baeck, it was their first trip west.
They’d been told the congregation had 100 members. They found 28 — writers and shopkeepers, families with little money and families with a great deal of it. There wasn’t a temple. Services were held at an Episcopal church and an old theater; classes for kids in the rented mezzanine of a supermarket.
“I was lucky,” he said. “This was a place not known for following everybody else. A place where somebody like me could come along, stir things up, and not get kicked out.”
He had a firm belief that synagogues must not exist apart from society. That Jews everywhere must engage in the issues of the day.
“There were always controversial issues,” he said. “Initially, the exaggerated fear of communism.”
He remembered consoling the congregant who was a Hollywood screenwriter, blacklisted after refusing to testify to the House Un-American Activities Committee. He recalled the week in 1953 when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for espionage. He’d slyly included the pair on his list of names to be read during the Kaddish prayers, which honor the dead.
“One of the members came out, boiling with rage,” he said. “I had put the Rosenbergs on the list because of my belief in the sanctity of all life, but I lied. I didn’t explain the real reason. I said that someone had come to me before the service saying he was related to the Rosenbergs, and that I never turned anyone down who asks for names on the Kaddish list. I still had a lot to learn about courage.”
Beerman isn’t easy to peg. He admitted that he has always questioned the existence of God. An unbending proponent of nonviolence — almost unheard of for a Jew in an era defined by the Holocaust — he joined the Marines in his early 20s. He needed to test whether his views were really covering a lack of courage.
He didn’t see combat. But a few years later, rabbinical studies took him to Jerusalem. He lived there with Martha in 1947, just before the founding of Israel, and joined the Haganah, the Jewish militia. Beerman carried grenades through the city’s streets.
“Thankfully, my group never really got into violent confrontations,” he said. “I was thinking about this as I wrote the sermon; thinking of those in the Israeli army today. 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.”
He paused for a moment, remembering.
“Luckily, I was spared,” he said. “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.”
By the 1960s and ‘70s, Beerman’s often controversial views were informing everything he did. His congregation eventually settled in a handsome, low-slung complex in Bel-Air. It boomed, filling with left-leaning Jews who agreed with him wholeheartedly, and with those who took some exception to the rabbi, especially on Israel, but admired his guts.
Daniel Ellsberg took to his lectern around the time of the Pentagon Papers trial. Cesar Chavez came too. Beerman spoke with passion about racial inequity and nuclear disarmament. He protested the war in Vietnam, met with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, embraced the local Muslim community, became rabbi-in-residence at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena.
Jews in America, Beerman felt, shouldn’t be beholden to any national interest.
“My belief was always that we do have an obligation to support our fellow Jews in Israel,” said Beerman, long a proponent of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. “But that does not mean we have to support them in the style of life they have chosen for themselves.”
Through it all, he retained tremendous respect within the Jewish community, leading, for example, the Board of Rabbis of Southern California. It helped that he doled out his views firmly but humbly, with a dose of self-deprecating humor.
But his stances weren’t swallowed easily.
“The rabbi is telling [Israel] to commit suicide sweetly and nicely for the sake of world opinion and peace — the peace of slavery and death,” one commentator wrote in a 1976 letter to The Times, responding to Beerman’s public call for Israel to negotiate with Palestinians.
He never wavered. And eventually, the critics’ voices were put into perspective by personal tragedy.
In 1986, Martha suddenly died of a heart ailment, just days after his retirement from Leo Baeck. Beerman married a second wife, Joan. But in 1993, Kate, his granddaughter, also died unexpectedly. She was 8.
“Two deaths, so sudden,” he said, his voice a whisper. “The darkest hours of my life. All else pales in comparison.”
Talk of Martha and Kate led to the hardest of questions. How did he deal with his own mortality?
“The questions surrounding this time — like God, like life and death. I have sometimes been thinking of this in the middle of the night, mulling them through my mind.”
He fixed his wire-rim glasses. Twenty seconds passed. His eyes closed and for a moment it looked as if would not be able to go on.
Then he was back. “All of this pain, this diminishment,” he said. “I am surviving now on the basis of other people’s care. I am amazed at the care I am receiving, from my family and so many others. The care and love, the care and love. I hold on to that. In the end that is what matters, care and love.”
There was something more he could hold on to. That last sermon. He was proud of it. He had agonized over it for months, racked by grief over the dead, over the notion that the terrible cycle of killing had taken hold once again.
“Our world needs troubled people,” he’d told the congregants that Saturday morning. “Jews even. Men and women who care. Who are not ashamed to be sensitive and tender.... Who can resist all those, friends and enemies, who seek to prevent us from seeing the utter uniqueness and irreplaceability of our own and others’ souls.”
When he finished, he looked out at the crowd and saw that some were sitting silently, lips pursed in anger, focused on what he’d said about Israel.
But he also saw that others weren’t angry at all. They were beginning to stand — first one by one, then row upon row — their applause washing loudly over the temple.
It startled him. In 65 years there, he would recall, a gentle smile on his face, he’d never received a standing ovation inside the temple before.
“If this was in fact my last sermon, well, I spoke my truth,” he said. “I spoke from a place of integrity.”
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