“Israeli friends were saying, ‘Don't be quiet! We need you to be a voice in the Diaspora for us. We need your support. No, you should not give in to the notion that if you don't live here, you can't say anything.”
April 4, 2015
Rabbi Richard Levy, who worked for the Jewish campus organization Hillel for 30 years and more the Reform Movement’s Hebrew Union College for more than 15 years, has long been an outspoken advocate for Middle East peace. He shares lessons learned working with “radical” students in the late 1960s and how the kind of openness he once knew at Hillel is circumscribed today by the organization’s policies related to Israel. Levy imparts his story of Breira (1973-77), a Jewish peace group that sought an alternative approach to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and how Hillel was consistently supportive when he and other rabbis were attacked for their early support of the two-state solution. Since the founding of J Street in 2008, Levy has been active with the organization.
In the fall of 1968, a group of self-identified “radical” Jewish students fled into Levy’s Hillel office at the University of California at Los Angeles. They were panicked after being told to fight for freedom in their own community in the immediate aftermath of the Black Power Movement. Their Jewish identities had previously seemed irrelevant to the contemporary societal issues that concerned them.
Rebranded as the Jewish Radical Community of Los Angeles, the group studied the left-wing Zionism of Ber Borochov, sought to create classes that would “take Jewish ideas and apply them toward changing the United States and changing the world,” wrote liturgy applying Torah to contemporary issues, and revived Yiddish culture. They wanted to “help build up Israel,” but also “to secure justice and a state for Palestinians.”
Levy learned a lot from the students. He was particularly excited by their creative uses of the Torah to address contemporary concerns in their Passover Haggadah; a model he believes remains relevant to this day. They wrote: “We as a national group of course demand our own national rights. But our national struggle must not make us blind to the dreams and rights of other people. We spill out this half-cup of wine in recognition of the fact that many times our gains are another people's loss.”
Levy remembers Hillel as a place where Jewish students “could do whatever they wanted to do and would be both supported but also talked to. When I disagreed with things, I would indicate my feelings. We had wonderful discussions. But the notion now that Jewish students who even express an anti-Israel viewpoint should not be allowed to speak in Hillel I think is contrary to everything that Hillel has stood for since its founding and that's very distressing.”
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Levy was one of many rabbis who joined Breira when it commenced in 1973, a time when “rabbis were probably the most respected Jewish leaders.”
Breira was small “but inspired fear among Israelis who spread the fear to the American Jewish establishment.” Levy understood (but has no proof) that Prime Minister “Golda Meir herself had initiated the campaign against Breira.” The assumption had been that American Jews would be supportive of anything that the Israeli government did. “The role of the Diaspora should be to support, to send money, to send olim (immigrants), and otherwise to be quiet.”
Breira’s “Israeli friends were saying, ‘Don't be quiet! We need you to be a voice in the Diaspora for us. We need your support. No, you should not give in to the [notion] that if you don't live here, you can't say anything.”
Levy felt, “we needed them to validate us and they needed us to support them, to feel they weren't crying out in the wilderness.” It reminded him of the civil rights movement when rabbis had been recruited, in part to give the movement more visibility. The newspaper would write a story if it involved white rabbis but wouldn't take notice of a black demonstration.
“One hopes that their own love relationships include criticism of the people whom they love, but somehow for Israel if you love it, you can't be critical. That was a great shame, because that's a lot of where the criticism comes from, out of very deep love.”
B'nai Brith, Hillel’s parent organization, came under “great pressure to clamp down on Hillel rabbis who were members of Breira,” but “Hillel defended our right to speak.” When B'nai Brith responded to public pressure and issued a statement calling on Hillel rabbis to take into account organizational principles in their work, Levy saw it as a “very, pareve, understandable statement” that enabled B'nai Brith to quiet its most vocal critics, and Hillel rabbis to “continue doing what our consciences called on us to do.”
Unfortunately, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, (rabbinic organization of Reform Rabbis) – was not so understanding. The executive vice president wrote letters to its members in Breira, including Levy, expressing shame over their involvement, but no formal disciplinary steps were taken.
Breira “showed that we could take the heat.” says Levy. We stood up to it. We worked shrewdly and sought out allies to protect us and to protect what we were fighting for.” He likes to think that Breira “helped to sow the seeds thirty years later of J Street.”
Levy’s experience with Breira was a reminder of the importance of speaking up. He fears that young people today get the message to err on the side of caution rather than to boldly stand up for what they believe.
Rabbi Richard Levy was born in Rochester, New York in 1937. He studied for the rabbinate at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, where he became involved in the Civil Rights Movement. In 1963, just two weeks after four schoolgirls were killed in the bombing of a Black Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, he served a student pulpit nearby. Levy was also one of 16 rabbis arrested in a 1964 civil rights protest in St. Augustine, Florida, the largest mass-arrest of rabbis in history.
Levy’s first pulpit was as the assistant rabbi to Rabbi Leonard Beerman at Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles from 1966-68. The summer of 1968, Levy took his first trip to Israel. He felt “a love of the country, a love of the people, a feeling of being at home,” but “was struck by” the similarities in the ‘attitudes by some Israelis about Arabs to some Jews in the South toward Blacks.”
Levy worked at Hillel as Director of the Hillel Council at the University of California at Los Angeles from 1968-75 and then until 1999 as executive director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council. Levy was Director of the School of Rabbinic Studies for ten years and then Rabbi of the Synagogue and Director of Spiritual Development at Hebrew Union College, Los Angeles until 2014, when he became Rabbi Emeritus. He is a former president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR) and helped to shepherd passage of the 1999 Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism.
Levy was a member of Breira from the time of its founding in 1973 until it closed in 1977 and was also active with a local affiliate called Yozma. Levy is a lifelong member of the Jewish Peace Fellowship and was a longtime member of the board of Americans for Peace Now. He was involved with New Jewish Agenda in the 1980s. Levy is presently a member of the J Street Rabbinic Cabinet and Advisory Council.