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A Great Man

Rabbi Leonard Beerman, a founding board member of Death Penalty Focus who remained an active, supportive and inspiring member of our organization over many years, passed away on Christmas Eve. His loss leaves a hole in the universe.

A man always willing to challenge himself, Leonard joined the U.S. Marine Corps during World War II and then the Haganah in 1947, during the founding of the State of Israel. He did so, he once said, to determine whether he was truly a pacifist or a simply a coward. He was, it is abundantly clear, a pacifist; he remained committed to his principles for the rest of his long and extraordinary life.

The founding rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple in West Los Angeles, Leonard was a leader in the ecumenical movement, a founder of the Interfaith Center to Reverse the Arms Race, an outspoken opponent of the war in Vietnam and every one since, a courageous supporter of civil and human rights, workers’ rights, gay rights and a champion of all those society overlooks or leaves behind.

Those of us fortunate enough to know Leonard saw in him an example of what it is possible to be in our world: a person of conscience and courage, one who not only had principles but lived by them, one who, if he had fears, refused to allow them to dictate his choices.

Leonard’s love of life, his brilliance, his clarity of vision, his generosity of spirit, his subtle wit, his utter honesty, his candor and his incredible courage combined to make this simple, unassuming man the moral compass for everyone he encountered. Agree with him or not, like him or not – and few could not – the vitality of his naked love for the unquenchable, indomitable human spirit left everyone touched, moved, and, even if secretly, awash in admiration.

The 13th century mystic Meister Eckhart said, “There’s a place in the soul that neither time nor flesh nor no created thing can ever touch.” That place was well known to Leonard. It is what he spoke to when saying, “An awakened conscience is what makes a human being, what makes a woman or a man more nearly a companion of God.”

Leonard saw that as we struggle to ensure that the value of every human person is recognized and honored, we move toward the light. As we insist that the least among us, even the violent, who because of the horror they inflict on others are spat upon, defiled, stripped of human status and condemned as “monsters,” still deserve to have the divine spark of humanity that is buried – no matter how deeply – within them recognized, embraced, cherished and nurtured.

He knew that “this life, this world, for all of its cynicism and stupidity and anguish, is also a place where change is possible…” As he saw it, “the most deeply human and courageous men and women are those who in life and death dare to submit themselves to the ordeal of walking through the fire of selfhood, of loneliness and tragedy.” And this led him to understand that “to be most deeply human is to be among the resisters, to resist whatever demeans life.”
Leonard Beerman will remain the moral compass for those of us lucky enough to have known him. To work with him in pursuit of peace, justice and human rights is to have been blessed.

Let me only add that one of the greatest achievements of my life is to have been embraced by him as his friend.

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