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
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.
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.
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.