Founding Rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple, Leonard I. Beerman, dies at 93

Rabbi Leonard Beerman, founding rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple, renown for his unremitting pacifism and for speaking out against injustice, died on Dec. 24 at the age of 93.
December 24, 2014

Rabbi Leonard Beerman, founding rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple, renowned for his unremitting pacifism and for speaking out against injustice, died Dec. 24 at the age of 93.

Beerman grew the reform congregation of Leo Baeck Temple from a small community of 28 members when he arrived in 1949 into one of the most prominent in Los Angeles. “With his inimitable mixture of elegance and outrage, Rabbi Leonard Beerman taught by example how to build an unflinching life of courage and conscience. He dreamed of humanity’s moral ascent and devoted his life to pursuing and inspiring it,” said Rabbi Ken Chasen, the current senior rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple.

Beerman’s faith was bound to his activism. Over the years he used his lectern to speak fearlessly on controversial issues, including the exaggeration of the Communist scare, advocating for better wages for the working poor in the United States, racial equality, and concern for the lives and welfare of Palestinians.

Moreover, Beerman spearheaded congregational activism. He led community efforts to fight nuclear proliferation, and, with All Saints Church in Pasadena, to refurbish skid row housing to provide decent living accommodations for the poor.

“Rabbi Leonard Beerman refused to meet injustice with silent complicity. Even when he felt called to take positions that he knew would be unpopular, he sensed a higher demand to serve as a witness to human suffering and to back up his impassioned words with principled action,” Chasen said.

Born in Altoona, Penn., in 1921, Beerman was ordained and received a master’s degree in Hebrew Letters from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR ) in Cincinnati. He served in the U.S. Marines during World War II. When fighting broke out in the new State of Israel after the 1947 United Nations vote in favor of partitioning Palestine into two independent states, Beerman, who was studying at Hebrew University, joined the Haganah.

In a 1997 interview, Beerman noted, “It was in the Haganah in which I served for about five months, I think, that I came more and more to believe that pacifism was a genuinely held conviction of mine.”

As a man of peace, Beerman made interfaith bridge-building an essential part of his leadership. He formed close friendships with members of the Los Angeles Muslim community, and for years he served as rabbi-in-residence at All Saints Church in Pasadena.

The Rev. Ed Bacon, the rector of All Saints, recalled in an interview that when he asked Beerman for advice on how to follow in the footsteps of Bacon’s predecessor, the Rev. George Regas, Beerman responded by quoting Joshua 1:9: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.”

Within days of Beerman’s retirement from Leo Baeck in 1986, his wife, Martha, died suddenly. He later married his current wife, Joan.

And though Beerman retired nearly three decades ago, he continued to deliver a sermon each year on Yom Kippur at Leo Baeck. Beerman was also a friend and mentor to faith leaders throughout Los Angeles, and to a generation of Jewish leaders across the country.

“Leonard was my childhood rabbi and model of prophetic passion, integrity, courage, activism for all things decent, and wisdom since I first heard him and became part of his community at the age of 12, in 1961,” said Rabbi John Rosove, senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood, who grew up in Beerman’s congregation. “He and I became particularly close in the last few years, and so I consider him not only my rabbi and mentor, but a dear, cherished friend.”

Rabbi Richard Levy, director of spiritual growth at HUC-JIR in Los Angeles and immediate past director of the School of Rabbinic Studies, served as an assistant rabbi at Leo Baeck Temple with Beerman from 1966 to 1968. 

“One of the reasons I wanted to be his assistant was that I wanted to be with a rabbi who spoke what he felt was true in his heart and was not afraid to do so,” Levy said. “People have always been critical of him, but very few people have left the synagogue. They were very proud of what he said and what he did, even if they disagreed with him. His ability to have people feel that they could disagree and still support the synagogue and support his right to speak was very important.

“He was a magnificent preacher. He was a very poetic soul, and part of the reason why his members were willing to support the stand that he took was that they loved his language. Even if they disagreed, they felt that he had beautiful way of expressing his thoughts. Part of his religious experience was an aesthetic experience as well.”

Beerman is survived by his wife, Joan; children Judith (Neil) O’Hanlon, Eve Beerman, Elizabeth (Lew) Rothbart, Elara Willens, and Scot and Marina Willens; six grandchildren; and siblings Helene Sternberger and Jack Beerman.

Those who would like to make a charitable gift in Rabbi Beerman’s memory are encouraged by the family to donate to Leo Baeck Temple, Death Penalty Focus or Kinder USA.

[Do you have a photo or memory of Rabbi Leonard Beerman you'd like to share? Send an email here.  Please include 'Rabbi Beerman' in the subject line.]

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