Thoughts on the Passing of Rabbi Leonard Beerman, of Blessed Memory

With Rabbi Leonard Beerman, left, Los Angeles, 2/2014

With Rabbi Leonard Beerman, left, Los Angeles, 2/2014

I am devastated to learn of the passing of my dear friend and mentor, Rabbi Leonard Beerman z”l, who died early this morning at the age of 93. His death comes as a profound shock to those of us who knew and loved him. Despite his advanced age, Leonard maintained his extraordinary vigor and energy until very recent days.

Readers of this blog may recall my post on our joint speaking presentation in Los Angeles last February. It was such a tremendous honor for me hold this open conversation with him, in which we mutually explored the subject of “Progressive Politics from the Pulpit.”

Here’s what I wrote at the time:

As Rabbi Beerman has been one of my true rabbinical heroes for so many years, it was truly a thrill for me to share a podium with him as we shared our thoughts on the challenges facing congregational rabbis who engage in progressive social justice activism.

As a Los Angeles native myself, I’ve long known of Rabbi Beerman’s inspired work during the years he served as the Senior Rabbi of LA’s Leo Baeck Temple. He was the founding rabbi of Leo Baeck in 1949 and stayed there for the next 37 years until his retirement in 1986. During that time, he challenged his congregants – and the Jewish community at large – to awaken to some of the most critical socio-political issues of the late 20th century.

Rabbi Beerman was a maverick in his day – and in many ways still is. He is a self-described pacifist who came by his stance honestly, after serving in the Marines in World War II and in the Haganah in 1947 while attending the newly founded Hebrew University. He was a student of Rabbi Judah Magnes, the great Reform leader who advocated for a bi-national state for Jews and Arabs – and he remains a passionate advocate for a just peace in Israel/Palestine to this day.

Rabbi Beerman came to Leo Baeck fresh from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati during the height of the Cold War and quickly became an outspoken and visionary peace activist. In one of my very favorite stories, he described his anguish at the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, which took place on a Friday afternoon in 1953. During Shabbat services that evening, he decided to add their names to the end of the yahrtzeit list (the list of names read before the recitation of the Kaddish) much to the dismay of some of his congregants.

Rabbi Beerman was also one of the first rabbis in the country to publicly condemn the US war in Vietnam and later instituted draft counseling in his congregation. He invited such figures as Daniel Ellsberg (who spoke on Yom Kippur afternoon while he was awaiting trial) and Cesar Chavez to speak at his synagogue. Rabbi Beerman was also a visionary leader for civil rights and worker justice and during the nuclear arms race was one of the leading Jewish voices in the disarmament movement.

I’ve particularly admired Rabbi Beerman’s fearlessness when it came to the subject of Israel/Palestine – clearly the issue that has earned him the angriest criticism from the Jewish establishment. He was a consistent and faithful advocate for justice for the Palestinian people long before such a thing was even countenanced in the Jewish community. Literally going where few other rabbis would dare to tread, he met with Palestinian leaders such as Yasser Arafat and Fatah founder Abu Jihad. That he was able to do all of this while serving a large, established Los Angeles synagogue speaks volumes about his integrity – and the abiding trust he was able to maintain with the members of his congregation.

Now in his 90s, Rabbi Beerman is still deeply engaged in the issues of our day. During our conversation together, we spoke about the current state of the Israel/Palestine conflict, the languishing peace process and the rise of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. I mentioned to those present that in 2008, during the height of Operation Cast Lead, when Rabbi Brian Walt and I were calling rabbinical colleagues to sign on to a Jewish Fast for Gaza, Rabbi Beerman was one of the first to sign on without hesitation. He did the same when we were forming the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council and his presence there is truly an inspiration to our members.

Little did I know, as I wrote these words, that I would be posting them again in less than a year’s time, as a tribute to his memory. And little did I know last February, as I openly shared my open admiration for Leonard as a congregational rabbinical role model, that in only a few months I would be find myself unable to continue combining radical political activism with a congregational rabbinate. I am all the more in awe of what Leonard was able to achieve, serving as the rabbi for Leo Baeck Temple for 37 years as he bravely spoke out on important and controversial issues of his day. We will not soon see the likes of him again.

I encourage you to read this wonderful LA Times profile of Rabbi Beerman that was published just last month. You can see our presentation in its entirety below.

May his memory be a blessing forever.


Civil Disobedience at McDonald’s Corporate HQ: Fighting for 15!

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Yesterday I spent the afternoon together with nearly 2,000 others who came from across the country to McDonald’s corporate headquarters in Oakbrook, IL to demand a $15 an hour living wage and the right to form a union. It was truly my honor to participate in this new global movement which has been called the “largest fast food strike in world history.”

McDonald’s is the standard bearer of an industry that makes profits of $200 billion a year while its workers across the country earn minimum wage or just above it and are forced to rely on public assistance programs to provide for their families and get healthcare for their children. Each year, fast food workers bring record profits into restaurants nationwide while they struggle to provide their families with basic necessities such as food, rent, healthcare and transportation. At present, 52 percent of these families are enrolled in one or more public assistance programs such as food stamps and Medicaid, compared with 25 percent of the workforce as a whole.

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Yesterday’s protest included McDonald’s workers and other fast food employees as well as supporters and clergy.  As I pulled into the park that served as our initial staging area, I saw lines of chartered buses arriving that I later learned had come from as far away as Kansas City, Detroit, Philadelphia, Wisconsin, and North Carolina. Just before the march began, we were told that McDonald’s, which had already been described as facing a “public relations minefield” in advance of its upcoming shareholders’ meeting, had told their corporate employees to vacate a portion of the premises in advance of our protest.

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As the protest began, we marched and chanted down the street leading to the McDonald’s corporate campus. After entering the security gate, we were met by a huge phalanx of police, state troopers and corporate security decked out in heavy riot gear. We then sat down in an act of civil disobedience, chanting, praying and singing songs together. Eventually we were led away one by one, our hands cuffed and put onto buses that drove us to the DuPage County police station where our citations were processed. There were approximately 110 arrests in all.

While the law enforcement treated us fairly and respectfully overall, I couldn’t help but be struck by the fearfully heavy handed response of this immensely powerful international corporation to a band of peaceful demonstrators made up largely of fast food workers and clergy. Truly a testament to the undeniable power of popular protest.

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While some might consider it to be tilting at windmills to demand $15/hr from such a corporate behemoth, there is every indication that this movement is gaining traction. Last March, for instance, voters here in Chicago went to the polls to determine whether or not they would support a $15/hour minimum wage for large employers in the city. As John Nichols noted in The Nation at the time:

The results were overwhelming. With 100 of the 103 precincts where the issue was on the ballot reporting, 87 percent of voters were backing the $15-an-hour wage. Just 13 percent voted against the advisory referendum. That huge level of support will strengthen the hand of activists who are encouraging the city council to consider a major wage hike.

The Chicago vote illustrates a phenomenon that is being seen in many of the nation’s largest—and most expensive—urban areas.

Indeed, polls are clearly indicating that Americans from across the political and ideological spectrum are in favor of a substantial increase in the minimum wage – and election results seem to be confirming the sentiment. There is every indication that this new global movement is being powered by genuine – and powerful – popular support.

Click here to learn more about how you can get involved in the growing Fight for 15. And click here to sign a petition to be delivered to McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s, that demands a minimum of $15/hour, noting that “it is outrageous that most of your full-time workers need to get public assistance to survive.”

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Casino Workers to Neal Bluhm: “Keep Your Promises”

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This past Wednesday I stood together with workers from Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, IL, Rivers Casino Pittsburgh, and SugarHouse Casino in Philadelphia who demanded that owner Neal Bluhm stop his draconian campaign against their organizing efforts.

Our action began as we marched down Michigan Avenue to Mr. Bluhm’s offices located at the exclusive mall, 900 North Michigan. When we entered the building, we were stopped by security – and when we requested to speak to Mr. Bluhm, we were told to leave immediately.

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Can you spot the rabbi in this picture?

We then gathered outside on the sidewalk, pulled out our cell phones, and left messages for Mr. Bluhm and his CEO partners, asking them why his casino’s employees were making far less in wages and benefits than those doing comparable jobs at his (unionized) Ritz-Carlton Hotel.  We also asked why these workers, who were helping Bluhm’s casino’s rake in record profits, were facing harassment and intimidation from management for legally seeking to organize themselves into a union.

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Refused entry to 900 North Michigan Ave, we hit the cell phones

Bluhm and his casino’s management are hoping they can win this one by hiring expensive anti-union firms to forcefully dissuade workers from organizing into a union. The courageous workers I met on Wednesday, however, show sign of backing down. It was my honor to stand together with them as they demand Neal Bluhm keep his promise for a fair process for them as they decide whether or not to unionize.  So far it’s been anything but fair: as I’ve previously reported, the casino’s actions have prompted 55 unfair labor practice charges to be submitted to the NLRB.

As always, I’ll continue to report on the progress of this growing organizing effort. Stay tuned.

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Unite Here Local 1 President Karen Kent addresses the crowd

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Clergy Delegation Meets With Rivers Casino Management

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Chicagoland clergy and Rivers Casino Workers before the clergy delegation to Rivers management, Dec.18, 2013

As promised, here’s an update on the workers’ campaign to organize a union at Rivers Casino in Des Plaines, IL. (For background, click here to read my post from last November).

On December 18, I was part of a clergy delegation that met with workers then visited Rivers Casino to demand a meeting with General Manager Bill Keena. The head of security arrived almost immediately and told us to leave the premises. After some back and forth, we finally were granted a meeting with him two days later.

We returned on December 20 and met with Mr. Keena and told management to immediately halt its illegal intimidation campaign against the organizing workers.  We also asked to meet with Neil Bluhm, Chairman of Midwest Gaming, the company that owns Rivers Casino.

Mr. Keena and casino’s Head Counsel did not respond to us other than to refuse to accept a letter of support for the workers signed by numerous members of the Chicagoland clergy community.  A week later, we received a response from Mr. Keena stating that “After further consideration, we have decided that no further meetings between our two organizations are necessary.”

Since the meeting, the Rivers Casino management has resumed its illegal anti-union campaign, having security personnel escort members of the organizing committee from the dining room, where they were having conversations with their coworkers about the union.  Several members of the organizing committee have been disciplined by the casino after talking to their coworkers in the dining room.  These actions prompted 25 additional unfair labor practice charges against the casino, bringing the total number of pending charges to 55.

Neil Bluhm and his management have clearly opted for a heavy handed, draconian response to the workers’ reasonable – and legal – efforts to organize themselves into a union. As those of us who were involved in the long and painfully drawn Hyatt boycott struggle would surely attest: it shouldn’t have to be this way.

In the meantime, the number of workers signing on to support unionization at Rivers is increasing – and the clergy are continuing to organize as well. This story has yet to be written – stay tuned.


Reclaiming MLK’s Vision of Economic Justice in Chicago!

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It was my great honor to participate yesterday in the profound and important MLK commemoration: “Hope in an Age of Crisis: Reclaiming Dr. King’s Radical Vision for Economic Equality.”  On a cold Sunday afternoon, an SRO crowd of 2,000 participants streamed into St. Michael the Archangel Catholic Church on Chicago’s South Side to reaffirm King’s unfinished work: the dream of economic equality for all Americans.

While few of us would deny the importance of devoting a National Holiday to the life and work of Dr. King, I believe this day too often sanitizes his legacy into meaninglessness. Even worse is the way corporate America has co-opted his name for its own profit and gain. (This morning, I opened the morning paper and was greeted by ads that invoked King to sell everything from cars to Macy’s merchandise.)

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It’s worse than ironic, when you consider how often King railed against corporate greed in this country – particularly toward the end of his life. Here’s but one example – a pointed MLK quote that was read aloud at yesterday’s gathering:

You can’t talk about solving the problem of the Negro without talking about billions of dollars. You can’t talk about ending the slums without first saying profit must be taken out of slums. You’re really tampering and getting on dangerous ground then. You are messing with captains of industry. Now this means that we are treading in difficult water, because it really means that we are saying that something is wrong with capitalism. There must be better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism.

Our keynote speaker, Reverend Dwight Gardner, of Trinity Baptist Church in Gary Indiana, put it very, very well:

Today in this celebration we will not lift up the toothless, scrubbed and anesthetized Dr. King as created by the mainstream media and ruling elite but we will uncover the real Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and his radical vision for economic equality.

In 1963 during the March on Washington, Dr. King gave an address that included a short section about a dream, but in the same speech he also declared that America had written the Negro a bad check that had come back stamped insufficient funds.  To paint him with only the hope that we could all just get along does his legacy a disservice and confuses Dr. King with Rodney King.

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And so our event, organized by the People’s Lobby and IIRON, brought together a wide range of citizens to reclaim King’s radical and unfinished legacy of economic equality. And more: to commit to creating a new movement to make it so.

Speaker after speaker spotlighted local Chicago and Illinois legislation that addressed issues ranging from corporate financial accountability, a living wage, public sector jobs, the prison industrial complex and environmental protection. One by one we invited elected officials to the stage and asked them tell us if they would support these legislative initiatives. Then we ended with a pledge to continue organizing to make this dream a reality.

One of our speakers, George Goehl, Executive Director of National People’s Action, correctly pointed out that the unprecedented inequities currently facing our nation are the product of a “masterful forty year plan hatched by CEOs and right wing politicians who were clear that they had to aggregate power to expand profit.”  Goehl noted that those of us who believe in a more equitable system will now have to develop our own long term plan for the “New Economy” with the following core goals:

– Everyday People Controlling the Economy

– An End to Structural Racism

– Corporations Serving the Common Good

– True Democracy – People in, Money Out

– Ecological Sustainability

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The power of these kinds of public meetings resides in their modeling of a system that is generated by people power. Unlike most political events, in which elected leaders or candidates drive the agenda, this gathering was driven forward by the people themselves. The politicians who participated were not allowed to give stump speeches but were rather asked to say aloud to the community whether or not they intended to support these legislative efforts. As King himself taught us, our elected leaders are not change agents – it is rather the popular movements that lay their demands at their door.

I encourage you, this MLK Day, to resist the corporate co-opting of King’s name – and to support efforts in your community to create true economic justice to our nation. Click here to learn about organizing initiatives near you.


Black Friday in Chicago: Walmart Workers Demand Respect!

A follow-up to my 11/21 post:

This morning I attended a Black Friday demonstration at a Walmart in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago. Following a rally and press conference, a group of Walmart workers and solidarity activists stood in line across Broadway Avenue until they were led away by the police (see pix below). This courageous act of civil disobedience was but one of many similar actions that took place at Walmarts across the nation today.

For a smart and intelligent discussion of Walmart’s treatment of its workers, I highly recommend this recent post in the International Business Times:

As one of the world’s most valuable companies and one of its biggest private employers with 2.2 million globally, the family-run business brought in revenues of $469 billion in 2013 and generated profit of $27.8 billion over the same period. Despite this, the average Wal-Mart salary for its lowest-paid workers for a 40-hour week is about $18,720, which would be the figure for a five-day week if the employee worked 52 weeks a year and didn’t pay any tax. OUR Walmart, a group of current and past employees, says the average salary is actually about $9 an hour and most workers only work 34 hours a week, resulting in an annual $15,500…

Incidentally, it would take the average worker around 750 years to earn the $23.2 million that CEO Mike Duke earned in 2012, approximately 1,034 times more than the company’s average worker.

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Stand in Solidarity with Walmart Workers this Black Friday!

If you want to do a mitzvah this Black Friday, please consider joining the growing movement that is demanding that Walmart treat its employees with human dignity and pay them a livable wage.

Emboldened by news from Walmart CEO that hundreds of thousands of Walmart workers are paid less than $25,000 a year, Walmart workers and supporters announced plans today for protests on Black Friday (November 29). Workers are demanding that Walmart to commit to improving labor standards, providing workers with more full time work at $25,000 a year and to put an end to illegal retaliation.

Today’s announcement follows revelations this week that many Walmart workers don’t have enough money to cover Thanksgiving dinner for their families, as well as the historic federal government finding that Walmart has been violating workers’ rights nationwide. In the meantime Walmart is the country’s largest retailer and employer, making more than $17 billion in profits, with the wealth of the Walton family totaling over $144.7 billion – equal to that of 42% of Americans.

Check out the new online video, above, in which the OUR Walmart campaign member Martha Sellers discusses employee’s struggles to get by on Walmart’s low pay. The video includes incredulous reactions from the media to the news that employees – not the company – are coming together to donate food to those who can’t afford a Thanksgiving dinner on their Walmart wages.

Over the past month, there have been exciting grassroots Walmart actions across the country, including the largest-ever civil disobedience against the retail giant in Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Seattle, Ohio and Dallas. On Black Friday last year, 30,000 Americans called for the country’s largest employer to change at over 1,000 stores in 46 states. This year is set to be even bigger, with experts like Occidental College professor Peter Dreier already calling Black Friday 2013 a “day for the history books” and a “major turning point in American history, similar to the Flint sit-down strikes of 1937.

Click here for information about a Walmart action near you (or to register one). Click here to sign an online petition started by Walmart employee Charmain Givens-Thomas that calls on President Obama to meet with strikers to “hear firsthand why they are appealing for respect and calling on Walmart to pay them enough to feed and support their families.”

I’ll see you in the streets this Black Friday!


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