This past Friday, June the 21st, the Jewish world lost a social justice giant in Rabbi Richard Levy.
Rabbi Levy was a passionate advocate for civil rights, social justice, and peace. At the invitation of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., he was part of a delegation of 16 Reform rabbis and one lay leader to stage a public protest against segregation in St. Augustine, FL, on June 18, 1964, where they were subsequently arrested in what is thought to be the largest mass-arrest of rabbis in American history. This was months after he was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in Cincinnati.
Rabbi Levy served as the assistant rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles. He later became Rabbi Emeritus of the Campus Synagogue and Director of Spiritual Growth at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Jack H. Skirball Campus in Los Angeles.
In this Tablet Magazine piece, Joshua Holo writes:
Throughout his career, Richard deployed rare eloquence with distinctive pathos in the service of his relentless sense of purpose. This passionate combination would seem at odds with his consummate gentleness, were it not for the fact that Richard’s sense of purpose was itself bound up in his abiding commitment, not only to justice but also to goodness.
Luckily, Rabbi Levy’s legacy will live on for generations to come. Below, you can watch him discuss Psalm 27, which we are taught to read every day during of the month of Elul, the month leading up to the High Holy Days. Rabbi Levy shared these words in the first month after JCJ’s inception.
Posted by Jewish Center for Justice on Wednesday, August 23, 2017
This week, Jewish Center of Justice Executive Director Rabbi Joel delivered the following eulogy for Rabbi Levy:
Richard Levy z”l
Tuesday June 25, 2019
These last few days I have been imagining the scene in heaven.
There is a new face sitting around the table in the Yeshivah Shel Malah, in that great room of Torah study in the heavens. Rashi, Maimonides, the Baal Shem Tov, they have all scooted over to make room for our sage and teacher, Rabbi Richard Levy. And while Richard is sitting there passionately teaching them about liturgy, teaching them about psalms… teaching them about justice… a great big and loving voice walks in and calls out to him…RICHARD. And with that twinkle in his eyes and smile on his face he leaves the table and walks towards that voice… because Carol… his one true love, has been waiting.
Richard… he returns to his beloved Carol.
As Rabbi Sari Laufer said to me the other day, “I think a lot of how Carol would just dominate a room and how Richard would sit back and bask in her glory.”
That Yeshivah Shel Malah and all of its sages are no match for Carol and his love for her.
He was… He was so much, to so many.
He couldn’t speak enough of you, Sarah, and you, Elizabeth. That twinkle in his eye when you were around. Connor and Chad, he couldn’t have been prouder to welcome you into the family… and Elijah, sweet dear Elijah. You brought such spirit and energy to him during these final years.
Richard was one of the G’dolei Ha-dor, one of the giants of our time… but he never asked to be, he never wanted to be.
He was a giant because he followed God’s word and answered the call for justice.
He was a giant because he believed in our tradition and lived his beliefs without fear of other’s words or judgement.
He was a giant who lifted up those who surrounded him.
He was a giant who cared for each voice, gave extra time, supported each soul and basked in the joy of all that life brought his way.
He was a giant who through his actions and faith raised the bar for what it meant to be a Rabbi, to be a teacher and to be a friend.
And sometimes… sometimes that giant [Richard] was at odds with the modern world.
Calendars and schedules were simply suggestions to Richard.
It was the personal encounter, those I-thou moments that mattered most.
A one-minute question turned into a 30-minute discussions.
A 30-minute meeting was a 2-hour conversation on life, justice, hope and spirit.
And often those meetings, those conversations, those interactions would end with the coveted “YAY!” That joyful, beautiful and innocent “YAY!”
He was our teacher… and he was our friend.
When God called on Moses to free the Jewish people, Moses responded with the words “Mi Anochi?” Who Am I? As in, who am I deserving of such a task?
When Richard sat with us, married us, named our children, edited our papers, created our dreams we would often ask that same question… Mi Anochi… Who am I? Who am I that you would care so much. Who am I deserving of your time?
You were jailed with King, you re-imagined a Reform Judaism that was welcoming to us. You wrote books that inspired our daily lives. You gave us the words to talk to God.
Who were we that you gave us so much of your time?
But for Richard… we were all equal children of God, beautiful souls deserving of praise and honor.
He believed in us… even when we still don’t believe in ourselves.
He was Love… and in return… we were taught how to love.
How to love ourselves, how to love God, how to love justice, how to love life and how to love each other.
And Richard taught us how to live.
“Live a little,” he would tell me when I brushed off lunch time desert.
“Live a little,” he would tell me when I ordered the salad and not the fries.
The fries… Richard loved a good French fry.
After my ordination, we would get lunch every three weeks. We would sit, talk about the future of Judaism, the future of Israel and the future of American politics. We would strategize about justice and what issues needed a rabbinic voice.
During one lunch I invited him to meet me at Le Pain.
“Lovely,” Richard said, in his Richard voice as we sat down.
As we ordered he asked for his signature Diet Coke.
“We don’t serve soda here sir.”
“Oh ok,” Richard responded.
Looking at the menu, Richard also noticed the lack of fries.
After our lunch as we scheduled our next meeting, Richard looked at me and said with his beauty and kindness “Might we try another place next time?”
No one is pure… but Richard was close.
He was a teacher to us all.
In his writings, in his classes, in the way he prayed and the way he lived.
We are reminded from the book of Exodus, that when Moses held up his hands on the mountain, the people of Israel prevailed. And when Moses’s hands grew heavy and tired, Aaron and Hur held up stones under them, so that the people could still gain hope, and inspiration from their leader and prevail.
Rabbi Richard Levy was our leader. Although he never wanted to be, we set him up on that mountain top and with Richard in our sight, we gained strength, hope and inspiration to the fight for justice, to make Judaism relevant and meaningful, to prevail in all that we did in this world. And over the years as Richard grew tired…we came to his side, we held up his arms, because selfishly, we needed him in our sight because we knew that a world without Richard was a world that was lacking in light and hope.
Richard is gone, but his spirit and soul remain on that mountain top as our beacon of hope and light during these dark days.
We will continue his fight for justice and vision of holiness because the memory and blessing of the righteous lives on in all who have been touched by their glory.
Thank you is not enough for the life of love and blessing that you bestowed upon us all. May our actions in this world be our eternal thanks to you. Good night Richard. Good bye my Rabbi.
Help us honor Rabbi Richard Levy by sharing this article to carry on his impactful legacy.