Rabbi Leonard I. Beerman's art-filled home on a quiet, verdant Brentwood street is a world away from the gritty industrial world in which he lived as a child during the Depression and again as a young man on the cusp of World War II. But it's his experiences in that world of assembly-line workers that led him to the rabbinate and to his 52 years in Los Angeles.
Leo Baeck Temple will honor the man who became its first full-time rabbi in 1949 at Friday night services May 4, celebrating Beerman's 80 years of life and his boundless commitment to social justice and liberal Judaism.
"We grew up together," Beerman said of the Reform synagogue, which had been founded the year before he arrived, newly ordained, from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. It was the only congregation he served during the 37 years before his retirement in 1986.
Beerman was outspoken on issues such as civil rights, workers' rights, the war in Vietnam and Mideast conflict. "Our synagogue became known as a place where these issues were engaged and openly discussed," inviting speakers that included Daniel Ellsberg and Cesar Chavez, Beerman said.
Under his leadership, the temple radiated "a wholesome atmosphere of ideas," he said. "Not everyone agreed with my views, but I think we established a relationship of basic trust."
"He was speaking against the Vietnam War before I even knew what the Vietnam War was," said John Rosove, senior rabbi of Temple Israel of Hollywood, who grew up at Leo Baeck. When Rosove took positions that could be controversial, he said, "I knew [Rabbi Beerman] had stuck his neck out long before I did."
Beerman said his Jewish identity was "nurtured by my experiences, being a child of the Depression, seeing my father cut down by the Depression." He was also a witness to the struggle of local workers to unionize and improve their lot in life, and he came to see being a Jew as carrying a responsibility "to enhance life for the least of God's children as well as the greatest."
Beerman spent most of his childhood in Owosso, Mich., about 20 miles west of Flint; his was one of seven Jewish families in town. Owosso had an active Ku Klux Klan -- black folks couldn't stay in town overnight -- and, growing up, Beerman heard the occasional anti-Jewish epithet or remark.
But, he said, "growing up in a small town was a magical experience.... You felt yourself embraced, part of a definable community."
In 1941, several months before Pearl Harbor, Beerman took a break from his studies at Pennsylvania State University and returned to Michigan to work in an auto-parts factory that had been retooled to produce machine guns. That's where he met up with a more virulent anti-Semitism: Some co-workers with whom he'd become friends dropped him when he mentioned that he was Jewish, and as word got out, other workers picked fights with him. "It was the experience of anti-Semitism that prompted me to think about the rabbinate as a place for me, because [prejudice] deprived me of this circle of friends," Beerman said in a television interview.
Curious about what caused hatred against Jews, Beerman began to read through the books on Jewish history and philosophy in the local public library; this research, in turn, sparked a desire for more formal Jewish study.
The current situation in Israel causes him great pain. "I've been accused of being overly sensitive to the rights of the Palestinians, [but] I have always believed that Israel accepted a basic contract, and the basic condition of that contract was that this land was meant to be shared," he said, calling Israel's occupation of the disputed territories "destructive of the values that had gone into the making of Israel."
Nor does he sound particularly optimistic about how the conflicts will be resolved. "It's tragic what these two peoples feel compelled to do to one another," he said. "It brings out the worst excesses of nationalist thinking on both sides. The only thing to hope for is that something is happening that none of us knows about."
But only an optimist signs up for as many causes as Beerman does. He's involved with Jewish and interfaith organizations opposing the death penalty and supporting sweatshop workers, the anti-nuclear movement, medical ethics -- and peace in the Middle East. He protested the Persian Gulf War and has fought for affordable housing and protection for the homeless.
Sanford Ragins, who was Beerman's associate rabbi during the tumultuous 1960s and is now senior rabbi at Leo Baeck, told The Journal that Beerman's passions informed Ragins' own activism. "He knew Judaism was not something you kept locked up in the ark," Ragins said.
"At an early age, I remember being spellbound by his sermonizing," said Rabbi Carla Howard, who grew up at Leo Baeck and currently serves Metivta, a Jewish contemplative center on the Westside. "I was coming of age in the late '60s, in the middle of this cultural explosion of values, and he was a voice that helped shape my values."
Beerman has known tragedy during his later years, having lost his first wife just after his retirement and an 8-year-old granddaughter to a sudden, undiagnosed ailment. But he says he looks forward to each new day with his second wife, Joan, and his children and grandchildren, with whom he regularly shares Shabbat.
And he still inspires congregations. "He is a rabbi's rabbi," Rosove said. "[Listeners] melt under his words, even when they don't agree with everything he says, because he speaks from a deep, prophetic place."
Leo Baeck Temple will honor Rabbi Leonard Beerman at services May 4, 7:30 p.m., 1300 N. Sepulveda Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 476-2861.