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Truthdigger of the Week: Leonard Beerman: Activist, Pacifist, Rebel and Rabbi

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Rabbi Leonard Beerman’s funeral is today. Truthdig Publisher Zuade Kaufman and Editor-in-Chief Robert Scheer will be among the many in attendance. With this piece by the Rev. Madison Shockley published earlier this week, we honor Rabbi Beerman as our Truthdigger of the Week.

Leonard Beerman died Wednesday, and with his passing the world has lost a great light for justice and peace. A North Star of moral and ethical integrity, Rabbi Beerman stood shoulder-to-shoulder with those of every faith, and of no faith, who shared his commitment to nonviolence, nuclear disarmament and human freedom. He came to these views out of his deep Jewish faith. But often he found himself in the company not only of Christians but also of Buddhists and Muslims — and not only with everyday folk but also with the Dalai Lama and Yasser Arafat.

Beerman came to Los Angeles as the founding rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple in 1949, just as the McCarthy era was hitting its stride. Hollywood was the rabbi’s congregation, and McCarthy was the pharaoh. But his first act was not in defense of a comfortable congregant; rather, he signaled the tenor of his rabbinate by adding the names of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg to the Kaddish (mourner’s prayer) list at his temple one night.

He offended many of his own congregation by praying for the Rosenbergs, who by some measure were deserving of punishment, yet he prayed for them because they were still human beings and his opposition to the death penalty was uncompromising. This was the first time the young rabbi would cause congregational consternation, but it would hardly be the last.

After fighting McCarthyism in the 1950s, Beerman took up his next unpopular cause by standing firmly against the war in Vietnam during the 1960s. This was, of course, also the decade of the civil rights movement, and he could be found speaking out, marching and preaching for racial equality and reconciliation.

Beerman’s greatest contribution to the world was his tireless work to rid the planet of nuclear weapons. His unflinching advocacy for nuclear disarmament at a time when the nation’s sworn enemy had enough weapons to destroy the United States in a single evening was totally consistent with the strength of his belief in peace. A priest (Rector George Regas), a minister (the Rev. William Coffin), and Beerman joined forces in the 1980s to lead a religious call to nuclear disarmament.

But Beerman never lectured the world about the great issues of the day without first addressing his own congregation and his own co-religionists. In 1982, he and other Jewish leaders called on Jews as a whole to oppose the nuclear arms race as a matter of faith.

No cause was more controversial than his ardent support for Palestinian rights. Never flinching in the face of withering criticism from his own congregants as well as from Jews from across the United States and Israel, his support was rooted in his firm conviction that peace was the only path to security for Israel and to justice for the Palestinians.

Close to home, he partnered with Regas of Pasadena’s All Saints Episcopal Church and the Rev. James Lawson of Los Angeles’ Holman United Methodist Church to bring leadership to Interfaith Communities United for Justice and Peace. In the wake of 9/11, his voice was joined with those of all faiths to steer the nation toward peace and away from the wars of retaliation that were brewing in the wake of that fateful day.

This is where I had the pleasure of meeting Beerman and basking in the glow of his intense humanity. In his presence there was no doubt that here was a man who loved every human being he ever met. Although he acknowledged wavering in his belief in God, he never wavered in his faith that God’s love was intended for each and all of God’s children. Rest in peace, Leonard Beerman.

The Rev. Madison Shockley
Contributor
The Rev. Madison Shockley is the pastor of the Pilgrim United Church of Christ (UCC) in Carlsbad, Calif. Originally ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1979, he has served churches in St.…
The Rev. Madison Shockley

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