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Roast Yields More Light Than Heat : Event Kicks Off Celebrations for Retired Rabbi Beerman

December 10, 1986|BEVERLY BEYETTE | Times Staff Writer

His congregants had come to roast Leonard Beerman, but in good conscience they could manage little more than a gentle searing. Suggestions, for example, that the temple might raise funds by selling "I Love My Founding Rabbi" bumper stickers and six-inch plastic replicas of their rabbi, suitable for either dashboard or refrigerator door.

But when all is said and done, planners acknowledged, "It's hard to be nasty to a person like Leonard."

Officially, Beerman retired Oct. 1 after 37 years as rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple. But the honors continue, honors that began with the roast and a weekend of celebration at the temple in November. Beerman calls it "a veritable orgy of commemoration."

The culminating event will be tonight's tribute dinner sponsored by the Interfaith Center to Reverse the Arms Race, of which he is co-founder.

Peace and Justice Fund

A turnout of 1,000 is expected for the $150-a-plate event at the Century Plaza, a fund-raiser to establish the Leonard I. Beerman Peace and Justice Fund.

The festivities are to begin at 6:30 p.m. and it is likely that Beerman will arrive early. His proclivity for being on schedule is such that he has been known to have his wife, Martha, time his sermons as he delivered them, waving her watch if he lingered too long in the pulpit.

Perhaps it is this sensitivity to timing that guided him in his decision to step down as spiritual leader of the 650-family Leo Baeck congregation, a congregation that he had nurtured from its infancy and had molded into what is sometimes referred to as "one of the few temples with a foreign policy."

At 65, physically fit and youthful, Beerman might have stayed on indefinitely. He had had second thoughts about retirement, he said, after looking up the definition in his Webster's. "It said something about withdrawal from society. That's not what I had in mind."

What he has in mind is to plunge even more fully into the life of the community. He reasons, "I have one more act of my life to live" and he wants to be free of "the responsibility of caring for a congregation" so that he can work for the things he holds most important--peace and justice and an equitable distribution of the world's goods.

Former Associate Rabbi Sanford Ragins, Beerman's successor, was installed in the senior rabbi's office at Leo Baeck and, on a recent morning, Beerman was settling into his new office, a cheerful niche created from patio space. Here, he will do some studying and "see troubled members of the congregation who want to talk to me."

Leonard Beerman is not rabbi emeritus. He explained that his congregation, which has always prided itself on its independence, "felt emeritus was too conventional." So, he takes into retirement the title of founding rabbi.

His relationship with the Leo Baeck congregation, which he calls "very rare," dates back to 1949 when, as a seminarian at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Beerman was one of 11 candidates invited by the forming congregation to interview for the position of rabbi.

"I didn't know anything about being a rabbi," he said. "I was interested in ideas." So was this congregation, as it turned out.

He had heard that Jews in Los Angeles played a lot of bridge, so before coming West he learned to play bridge. He had heard that novelist Irving Stone was a member of the congregation, so, on the train West, he read "Lust for Life."

His first meeting with the congregation was in a church, rented for the night, at Olympic and Crescent Heights boulevards. "They made it look good," he said, "like there was a congregation of about 100." It was, he reflects, a "curious assortment"--Eastern liberals who had not found a spiritual home in Los Angeles, shopkeepers, a few moneyed people, about 27 families in all.

From the start, Beerman said, "We liked each other." He had the job.

Humble Beginnings

The temple was to have many homes during its humble beginnings--an Episcopal church on Carthay Circle, a former Canadian Legion hall near San Vicente and La Cienega, a defunct Culver City theater. In April, 1963 it moved to its present home, built for $1 million in Sepulveda Pass at the foot of Bel-Air.

Leo Baeck's congregation is predominantly from the Westside, with a disproportionate number of professionals, and Beerman was aware from the first that he was "the bearer of a dark secret"--that Judaism is not a religion designed for the well-to-do but "for those who have trouble sleeping at night."

Sandy Ragins put it another way, "It's very easy to be pious in Bel-Air"--and Beerman has never let them forget that.

Beerman has always believed that "a major function of religion is to discomfort the comfortable and to sow a seed of endless discontent."

A synagogue, Beerman says, is not about worship "in splendid isolation." He observed that every Jewish sanctuary has a window, a reminder that the synagogue is meant to be not a retreat, not a place to ponder values in the abstract, but "a window on the world."

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