Death News Rabbis

Azkarah for Rabbis Schulweis and Beerman: Darkness in the Time of Light

Chanukah, the joyful festival of lights, was dimmed in Los Angeles last month by the loss, at the beginning and the end of the holiday, of two great and very different rabbis: Harold M. Schulweis and Leonard I. Beerman.

They both lived long, fruitful and honored lives—Harold was 89 at his death and Leonard 93.  Harold was a creative, dynamic, brilliantly articulate and scholarly colleague, who turned Valley Beth Shalom, once a quiet, nondescript Conservative synagogue in the San Fernando Valley suburb of Encino,  into an equally dynamic model of a community at the forefront of many of the toughest issues facing contemporary Jewry—and indeed, the world.

Leonard was also much beloved, but was a much more controversial figure.  He was the Founding Rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple, a Reform synagogue that he always wanted to be a model for others.  At its inception he put a cap on membership, lest it grow too large and impersonal; it did not call attention to significant donors through plaques or “naming opportunities”; at a time when every new synagogue in Los Angeles was built of red brick with unimaginative architecture, Leonard engaged a forward-thinking modernist who designed a daring building out of stucco that looked as though it were about to take wing out of the Santa Monica Mountains.  He employed other modern designers for lamps and chairs and pews, and filled the hallways with the Marc Chagall Biblical prints.  He believed that the religious experience should also be an aesthetic one.  Harold inherited his building, but when it came time to design an expansion, he engaged the great stained-glass artists, the Plaschkes, to create stunning windows in hallways and a new chapel.  Only recently has Los Angeles started to pay

Rabbi Leonard Beerman
Rabbi Leonard Beerman

serious attention to architecture; Leonard was ahead of his time, and Harold acted on his aesthetic impulses as soon as he had a chance.

Both men saw their pulpits as the world.  Leonard became a pacifist after enlisting in the Marines in World War II and fighting in the Israeli War of Independence.  Having indirectly  helped give birth to Israel, he felt a passion for it throughout his life that he often felt was unrequited.  He wanted it to be more expansive than it was, he wanted it to end the occupation of Palestinians through a negotiated peace allowing for a Palestinian state to exist alongside Israel.  After he retired, at the gracious invitation of one of his successors, Ken Chasen, he would preach regularly on Yom Kippur morning, often about Israel, and often with an angry tone that perplexed his listeners, who could not hear the frustrated love that lay beneath his words.  He paid a price for his dovishness: in 1971, after he was nominated as president of the CCAR, a colleague moved that the nomination be overturned, an unprecedented act, and someone else was elected in his place.  The rules were changed to prevent that from happening again (now we use a completely different system of nominations).  While the pain from that incident never left him, it did not affect the stances he took.

Leo Baeck Temple, Los Angeles
Leo Baeck Temple, Los Angeles

Leonard believed passionately in social justice, in requiting the balance between rich and poor, and periodically his sermons led to one or another person walking out—but they never resigned from the temple.  It was clear that they were proud to be members of a synagogue that stood for important ideas, even if they occasionally disagreed with those ideas; and they knew that Leonard respected them and cared for them, however much they might disagree.  And they loved his eloquence—his language soared, elevating the causes he preached, and one’s soul would be lifted even when one’s mind demurred.  He wanted his members to see themselves not only as caring Jews but as caring citizens of the world, and so he often laced his sermons with poetry and other bits of wisdom from a wide range of sources and would bring to the synagogue Christian ministers with whom he shared common convictions.  It was reciprocal: he was Rabbi in Residence at All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, and when the minister announced his death, the congregation gasped and cried almost as one, “O no!”

Harold was equally involved with the non-Jewish world, but in a different way.  Discovering that some of the Gentiles who had protected Jews from the Nazis had suffered economically from their heroism after the war, he created the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous to assist such individuals materially, and he founded Jewish World Watch to protest genocidal actions around the world, beginning in Darfur in the Sudan.  Such protests were, to him, acts of Kiddush Ha-Shem, intended to keep Jews from seeing themselves as the eternal victim and, instead, to think of themselves, as Leonard did, as citizens of the world, responsible to prevent what happened to us from happening to others.  One of the minyan services after his death was co-conducted by a Rioman Catholic priest in charge of Catholic-Jewish relations for the Los Angeles Archdiocese.

Rabbi Harold Schulweis
Rabbi Harold Schulweis

Why was Harold so widely beloved?  He was a wonderful pastor. He pushed people to extend themselves beyond what they thought they could do. But most of us do that.  The primary reason, as my wife Carol noted, was that “he knew stuff”.  He was a scholar able to translate what he knew into knowledge that other people could absorb.  He demonstrated that learning every Shabbat morning in the remarkable discussions he conducted around the Torah reading and in his responses to issues that people would bring to him in his study. We all “know stuff,” but how much have we learned since we left rabbinical school?  Harold’s legacy reminds us how important ongoing learning is for us—how much our authority as rabbis rests not in our titles but in what we know and in how we can communicate and share that with others, engaging them in learning so they can see how Torah can elevate their lives.  Do we set aside time for Torah study (one of the questions we will be asked in heaven)? Do we bring Torah into our pastoral conversations?  Into our bulletin articles or our blogs?  Are our sermons laced with insights from Torah—not as occasional grace notes but as direct sources for the points we make and the stances we hope people will adopt?  Harold initiated the phenomenal growth of Valley Beth Shalom not only through engaging Torah study but by the then unknown practice of opening the synagogue on Friday nights to Israeli dancing, which made it “the place to be” for many young people, reminding us of the eternal wisdom of Torah im derech eretz.

Leonard’s status as a beloved rabbi stemmed more for the model he was for other people.  I came to Los Angeles in 1966 to be his assistant rabbi because I wanted to learn how to be brave in the pulpit, how to insist on speaking truth even when others might find it uncomfortable.  Leonard tried to teach me to speak clearly, so people would understand both what I was saying and what I was not saying; to be respectful of others’ opinions and pastorally present with people when trouble came upon them.  If Leonard’s was a prophetic voice, it was the voice of the post-Exilic prophets, who exhorted their people to lives of justice while understanding the pain they experienced trying to build a new society out of the ruins of Exile.  Leonard reminded us throughout his life that peace and justice will not be triumphant unless truth and compassion are as well.

Both Leonard and Harold cared deeply about music, and they nurtured the work of the musicians with whom they worked: Cantor Herschel Fox and the composer Aminadav Aloni at Valley Beth Shalom and Cantor William Sharlin at Leo Baeck Temple.  William’s music pervades Leo Baeck to this day, and one of the most moving parts of Harold’s funeral was the El Malei Rachamim sung by Herschel Fox.  The melody flowed out of a soul overcome with love and grief for someone who had cared so much for him.  He introduced several Hebrew descriptions of Harold into the traditional text (not a bad thing to emulate), and the result was a reminder of how important it is to nurture the cantors who work with us.  We sometimes let ourselves be caught up in petty issues with our cantorial colleagues—not always because of our doing. But the more we can develop both a mutual and a mentoring relationship (including encouraging the cantor to mentor us) the more we can be partners in creating a musical environment that can raise everyone to heaven-piercing prayer.

The Los Angeles Jewish community—indeed, the entire Jewish world—lost two magnificent rabbis this year in the darkest time of the winter.  As they lit candles throughout their lives, so need we do so in their memory, as we recall how a single, soaring flame can melt some of the darkness of the world.

Rabbi Richard N. Levy is the Rabbi of Campus Synagogue and Director of Spiritual Growth at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, CA. He completed a two-year term as the President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and was the architect of the Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, the “Pittsburgh Principles,” overwhelmingly passed at the May, 1999 CCAR Convention. Prior to joining the HUC-JIR administration, Rabbi Levy was Executive Director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council. He is also the author of A Vision of Holiness: The Future of Reform Judaism.

Rabbis Reform Judaism

Renewing Our Spiritual Infrastructure

In May 1999, about 15 ½ years ago, the Conference passed its Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, the Pittsburgh Principles, by an overwhelming majority.  Two years ago, the Reform Leadership Council endorsed a “Vision Statement” which, while more concise, reiterates the same ideas.  What place have these documents in our life now?  Where is our Movement headed today?

Following the Principles’ categories of God, Torah and Israel, most of us would agree that we are much more comfortable speaking about God’s role in our lives than we used to be, and when difficult individuals challenge us, we are more and more prone to remember that they too are created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God.  We have joined in the struggle to preserve and protect God’s creation, lifting our voice for a faith-based environmentalism in a society that still too often sees that as a contradiction in terms.  We are not as advanced as we might be in “encountering God’s presence in acts of justice and compassion,” still too prone to give in to wary congregants’ characterization of acts and statements of justice as “political” rather than “spiritual”.  We have, I believe, work to do in that area.

Do we pray as often we know we should?  Do we study as much, as regularly?  The Principles can serve us as a goad in these realms.  The CCAR, particularly under Debbie Prinz’s guidance, has helped us in both these areas—but we need to help each other as well.  “What are you studying these days?” we can ask our friends.  “Could I talk with you about some issues I’ve been having with prayer lately?”  Perhaps the Conference might conduct a periodic call-in session to talk about our spiritual lives.  With the collapse of the regional councils of the URJ years ago, perhaps the Conference might convene such gatherings in its regions, around regional kallot.  The College-Institute would, I am sure, be glad to host such conversations for colleagues in the vicinity of our campuses.

The section on “Torah” in the Principles commits us to the “ongoing study of the whole array of mitzvot”. Have we looked at a list of them recently?  Maimonides’ Sefer Ha-Mitzvot, particularly in the Moznayim edition, is an excellent place to start.  Which of them calls to me?  Which ones used to call to me that I no longer fulfill—do I still agree with that decision?  Are there mitzvot that I have been considering for a long time—is now the time to respond to them?  Are there mitzvot not in Maimonides’ list that call to me?”

The Torah section concludes with a catalog of ways to bring Torah into the world.  It’s a good idea to review that catalog periodically.  What are we doing to “narrow the gap between the affluent and the poor”? To “act against discrimination and oppression”?  “To pursue peace”—in our own homes, our communities, in Israel?  “To welcome the stranger”?  “To protect the earth’s biodiversity and natural resources”?  Are we giving as much tzedakah—of our earnings and our time—as we might?

The Israel section invites us to ask similar questions: are we acting on “a vision of the State of Israel that promotes full civil, human and religious rights for all its inhabitants and that strives for a lasting peace between Israel and its neighbors”?  The news of the past several months reminds us how much the Reform Movement is needed to help stem the dangerous nationalistic tide that seems to be engulfing the Israeli government. How do we respond to the chaos in the Middle East?  I believe that a state for Palestinians must be created alongside the State of Israel.  You may not agree, but the Principles suggest that, whatever course we affirm, we need to work for its fulfillment.

And if we respond to all these prompts, “I am so stressed, I feel so pursued by difficult congregants or troubled students—I have no cheshech to ask such questions!” Attention to such mitzvot is a way to lessen stress, to remind ourselves, at a time when we feel that others are controlling our lives, of how much of our lives we can control, how much we can contribute to being partners with God, spreading Torah in the world, and realizing our ancient visions of the people and the nation of Israel.

The financial crises which have beset the arms of the Movement over the years have weakened some of our infrastructure.  We—our institutions and our colleagues—cannot let it weaken our spiritual infrastructure, our resolve to continue energetically to serve God and Torah.  We need to be strong in this time, colleagues; we need to strengthen each other.

I hope you will respond to these thoughts on RavBlog, and I will respond to you.

Rabbi Richard N. Levy is the Rabbi of Campus Synagogue and Director of Spiritual Growth at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, CA. He completed a two-year term as the President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and was the architect of the Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, the “Pittsburgh Principles,” overwhelmingly passed at the May, 1999 CCAR Convention. Prior to joining the HUC-JIR administration, Rabbi Levy was Executive Director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council. He is also the author of A Vision of Holiness: The Future of Reform Judaism.

Immigration Rabbis Social Justice

We Stand with Ruth of Moab, And We Stand With the Ruths of Today

This blog is the last in a series from Rabbis Organizing Rabbis connecting the Omer to Immigration Reform. This Shavuot, we recommit ourselves to working with the modern-day strangers among us. This Shavuot, we stand with Ruth. Rabbis Organizing Rabbis is a joint project of the CCAR’s Peace & Justice Committee, the URJ’s Just Congregations, and the Religious Action Center. Learn more and join the mailing list.  

We Stand With Ruth of Moab 

The Book of Ruth begins with the introduction, “It happened in the days when the judges judged” and concludes with the birth of King David, the representative figure for Malchut, the sephira of sovereignty.  The book itself is a kind of cri de couer for a better time—free of this book’s rampant poverty, loneliness and maltreatment (in Ruth 2:9 Boaz warns his workers not to molest Ruth, implying that they regularly molested other women).  We know that that is the Biblical view of the period of the Judges, when periodically “Israel did what was wicked in the eyes of Adonai” (Judges 4:1 et al.) because “in those days there was no king in Israel; each person would do what was right in one’s own eyes” (Judges 21:25).

For while it was a time when the Judges judged, they did not seem able or interested to judge how they might stop the famine which had sent Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi and her family into exile in Moab to seek food.  In our own time, so many people come to the United States to flee famine, drought, poverty or political oppression, often because they have given up hope that the powers in their own countries will be able to assist them, or care about assisting them.  They too are searching for a sovereignty which cares for them.  They have learned to believe that Americans do care.

To leave Eretz Yisrael for another land was a major decision, just as it is today.  To leave the country of one’s birth, however oppressive its living conditions, remains a difficult decision, never made lightly.  Today’s immigrants, like those in the Book of Ruth, have to abandon family, friends, the only language they know, sometimes the only place they have known.  Naomi, widowed by the man who led them into Moab, speaks of herself often as a bitter woman.

Her husband’s name was Elimelech, “My God is Sovereign”.  Yet what is sovereign in this book?  Naomi seems to believe that for each person—at least in her family—homeland is sovereign; in the book’s most famous passage, 1:14-17, three times Naomi urges Ruth and her sister Orpah to return (shovna)to their homesthe source for the custom of turning away potential converts three times.  They were all immigrants, Naomi held, and with their husbands dead, the sisters should return to the place from which they came.  But Ruth perceives a higher obligation—a higher sovereignty, if you will; using the same word as her mother-in-law, Ruth says, “Don’t entreat me to abandon you, to turn back (la-shuv) from you.”  For Ruth, to “return” to her own home would be to turn away from her proper home—the home she felt called upon to go to, because of her loyalty and love for Naomi.  If this book is a tribute to the rewards that come from following the precepts of the Torah (obedience to parents [or in-laws], caring for the stranger, leaving grain for the poor, etc.), Ruth turns to the sovereignty of God rather than the sovereignty of her own native place.  But the sefirah of Malchut also has a human dimension, representing kenesset Yisrael, the community of Israel—since it is through the community of Israel that God’s sovereignty is manifest.  When Ruth embraces the people Israel in choosing to go with Naomi, she embraces this dual dimension of Malchut as well.

The implications of this decision for today’s immigrants is instructive.  While we usually attribute primarily economic motives to contemporary immigrants’ desire to remain in the United States, we do our country a disservice by playing down a motive similar to Ruth’s: a belief, or a desire to believe, that the United States is a more caring country than the one from which they came.  How often do we tarnish that belief with the insensitivity, fear, and hostility we show particularly to undocumented immigrants, but often to all immigrants! How insensitive we often are to the still present American commitment to being a beacon to the oppressed—to the malchut, if you will, of the “American dream”—and of the American people as, at their best, the embodiment of it.

As a result of Ruth’s decision to remain with Naomi, the older woman feels an obligation to care for her.  A word that pervades the book, chesed, usually translated “love” or “lovingkindness”, really means love borne of a covenant.  Ruth shows chesed to Naomi, Naomi shows it to her, and Boaz shows it to both of them.  This covenantal love stems from the covenant God made with Israel at Sinai, which the Holy One will renew with us when the period of the Omer climaxes with Shavuot.  Devotion to the covenant is a sign of acceptance of the sovereignty of the God who made it—ol malchut shamayim, the “yoke” of the rule of heaven, and ol mitzvot, the “yoke” of the mitzvot.  Ol in Hebrew is related to the word al, above, with the sense that the yoke links us to the God above, rather than the more usual image of joining two creatures on the same level.

Are we ready to feel a sense of “covenant” with the undocumented immigrants of our time?  Are we ready to link them with the memories of grandparents or other relatives who endured many hardships to reach these shores—often out of the same motives as today’s undocumented?  And if we say, “Well, our ancestors came legally,” we forget that most of them came here at a time when immigrants were wanted, invited, encouraged by the state.  Now that the state is hostile to immigrants, to which sovereignty are we going to be loyal, that of a welcoming, covenanting God, or a too often frightened state?  Or, in the language of the Book of Ruth, are we going to be  citizens of a too often uncaring rule of Judges, or of the ideal, embracing sovereignty of God’s Malchut?

The season in which we read this book makes our choice quite clear.

We Stand With the Ruths of Today

Rabbi Shoshanah Conover of Temple Sholom of Chicago speaks with Erendira Rendon, Lead Organizer at the Resurrection Project in the Pilson neighborhood of Chicago. As Naomi stood with Ruth of Moab, Reform rabbis are standing with the Ruths of today – undocumented immigrants like Ere. Watch the Youtube video. 

Rabbi Richard N. Levy is the Rabbi of Campus Synagogue and Director of Spiritual Growth at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, CA. He completed a two-year term as the President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and was the architect of the Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, the “Pittsburgh Principles,” overwhelmingly passed at the May, 1999 CCAR Convention. Prior to joining the HUC-JIR administration, Rabbi Levy was Executive Director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council. He is also the author of A Vision of Holiness: The Future of Reform Judaism.  




Ethics General CCAR Reform Judaism

Recapturing Our Prophetic Voice

This week’s Torah portion recalls for us God’s promises that fill the four cups from which we drink each year at the Pesach Seder—v’hotzeiti, “And I will take you out from oppression,” v’hitzalti, and I will deliver you; v’ga-alti, “And I will redeem you,” v’lakachti, “And I will take you as My people,”—and one additional promise that fills the cup we leave untasted, the Cup of Elijah: v’heiveiti,  “And I will bring you into the Promised Land” (Ex. 6:6-8),

For our ancestor Reformers, this country was the Promised Land, and for the Reformers who founded PARR (Pacific Association of Reform Rabbis), the West was
the Promised Land—deserts and palm trees and oceans, and in the north, rain in abundance.  But we know that California and the other Western states have not lived up to that promise—we know that there is much deliverance and redemption yet to be accomplished.
Copy of fn21 Our colleagues in the last century, hearing the call of our prophetic movement, thundered from their pulpits in support of labor, marched in Delano with farm workers, went South—or lived in the South—to help free African Americans, marched on draft boards to end the war in Vietnam, smuggled themselves into Moscow and Leningrad and Kiev to give succor to refuseniks—all the while yearning to drink the wine of Elijah’s cup in a toast to a world in which the promises had been

Now it is our turn to lend our voices to the needs of people in these states, to walk the prophets through the halls of the Legislature, to work to protect the stranger from being uprooted from what has become her home, to enable these states to better teach the Torat Chayim to all their students.  Like the rabbis who have gone before us, the rabbis taking the lead in this effort tonight, and all of you who have been working on these issues much of your lives, we know that teaching Torah takes a different form in the streets and the halls of power than in our study groups, Hillels and synagogues—Torah may look like a bill in the legislature, or a lobbying effort with state senators, but Torah it is, and as Reform rabbis we have a duty to teach it wherever God calls us to speak—and to act.

Our forebears knew that to work for redemption they had to be bold.  In a time when many rabbis and rabbinic students are urged to be careful, we are preaching March-on-Washington-Central-Conference-of-American-Rabbisanother message: a prophetic movement must take stands for justice, a prophetic movement must take risks for justice—else we risk forfeiting this title our movement has borne so proudly since our founding.  We must study Torah—we need always to study more Torah—but we must also take Torah into the streets with us, hold it proudly aloft as we proclaim: v’zot ha-Torah asher sam Moshe—this is the Torah which Moses and all who followed him have placed in our arms: a Torah of justice, of truth, of compassion.  We need to work on these issues— to explore how we can carry the Torah we love so deeply into a world whose people yearn so deeply for its application to their lives.

Four cups sit waiting in this week’s parasha—fill them full of your passion and your wisdom and your strength, so that we can come that much closer to filling Elijah’s Cup, to seeing the promise of this great western land fulfilled.

My fellow klei kodesh—may God fill us all to overflowing in the year to come.


– These remarks were originally delivered at PARR, on January 7, 2012, as part of the “Reform CA” Program –

Rabbi Richard N. Levy is the Rabbi of Campus Synagogue and Director of Spiritual Growth at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, CA. He completed a two-year term as the President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and was the architect of the Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, the “Pittsburgh Principles,” overwhelmingly passed at the May, 1999 CCAR Convention. Prior to joining the HUC-JIR administration, Rabbi Levy was Executive Director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council. He is also the author of A Vision of Holiness: The Future of Reform Judaism.