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Remembering Leonard Sussman

Jack Ross
Spring-Summer 2015

When I paid my first visit to Leonard in May 2008, having only resolved the night before that I was going to tell him I was definitely interested in writing a full length biography of Elmer Berger, I could not escape the echoes of the boyhood romantic archetype of Luke finding Obiwan. Indeed, though Leonard insisted he was answering questions about a part of his life he had scarcely thought about in forty years, he remembered it all effortlessly and did not give a second thought to giving his full support and assistance to writing my book. And indeed, Leonard Sussman was the last to have had an intimate acquaintance and memory of all the founders, particularly the founding rabbis, of the American Council for Judaism.  
I had been seized by the subject of Reform anti-Zionism since seriously discovering it a full year before that first meeting. Within weeks of the September 11 attacks I spotted and claimed an original edition of Alfred Lilienthal’s What Price Israel on my grandparents’ bookshelf, I read the book and found it compelling but for many years did not delve deeper into its background. The interest and ultimate impetus to write my book on the subject came just after I left graduate school and was aimless, and just beginning to work on it made me feel like I should still follow my passion as a writer. For his indispensable role in my first book that allowed me to do so, I will always owe Leonard immeasurable thanks. In addition to no fewer than five formal interviews for my book, I visited Leonard at his picturesque Vermont homestead many times with my mother, who moved there at almost exactly the same time I began working on the book.  
Leonard represented a lost world that had always drawn me in one way or another — a Jew from the forgotten middle between the Lower East Side and the wealthy “our crowd” on the sidewalks of New York (all eight of his great-grandparents German immigrants following the 1848 revolution), to the right of the liberal Jewish consensus in temperament if not in actual politics. Yet Leonard was also many things contrary to all that — irrepressibly earnest and optimistic, broadly liberal in outlook while resolutely centrist in temperament, with all the foibles that combination suggests. It is especially striking that he maintained such an enduring and devoted friendship with one as much his opposite in personality as Elmer Berger — gruff, stand-offish, and irascible on a good day.  
Leonard truly led an extraordinary life. As a student and lifelong friend of the revered Sidney Hook at NYU in the 1930s, perhaps nothing stunned me more than realizing, after having already known Leonard a few years, that he had to be the last man alive who had known the great conservative thinker James Burnham when he was still a Trotskyist. In his 17 years employed by the American Council for Judaism, he was able to know many of the extraordinary figures connected to it — from its outspoken lay leaders like Lessing Rosenwald and William Zukerman to its loyal friends such as Norman Thomas, Dwight Macdonald, and Freda Utley. And then, in his incredible second career at Freedom House, Leonard had the privilege of being present at many of the great moments in the extraordinary advance of democracy in the late stage of the Cold War, particularly in Africa and Latin America. His notable friends in these years included the civil rights leader Bayard Rustin and the Dalai Lama, whose first of many visits to the United States in 1979 he was integral to arranging. Exceedingly active and alert until the last year or so of his life, around the age of 90 he traveled to both Vietnam and Bhutan.  
During his time with the American Council Judaism, Leonard’s primary interest was always in advancing and preserving the outlook of Classical Reform Judaism, particularly for young people; my book details both the early impetus for this undertaking and the remarkable publishing output he achieved. Probably his greatest point of pride was the extensive religious school curriculum he designed, and it was to his regret that he was unable to ever locate this document in his apartment to be made available to the community of scholarship. I know of at least one synagogue in Illinois that likely still has this in its own archive, and would urge that it be retrieved to the benefit of the substantial number who in our own time are no doubt interested in a developing a model for non-Zionist Jewish education.  
Yet during his extraordinary second career at Freedom House, Leonard would make an exceptional contribution to the cause of peace and justice in Israel and Palestine. In that later period of the Cold War, the relatively young human rights community was too often polarized between Freedom House on the nominal right and Amnesty International on the nominal left. But when the Helsinki Accords first came into effect at the end of the 1970s, it was Leonard who first publicly called for establishing an entirely new organization that he termed a “Helsinki Watch.” The result was the organization now known as Human Rights Watch, which has been as unsparing in its assessment of the human rights situation in Israel and Palestine as throughout the world, and one can only conclude that it is precisely because it is so plainly lacking in a partisan agenda that it has been so ruthlessly attacked by the Israel lobby.  
When one of the founders of Human Rights Watch began publicly attacking it for its stands on Israel and Palestine, I urged Leonard to go on the record, but he demurred, always showing an odd cognitive dissonance about the intersection or lack thereof of his two careers. Yet when I held an event for my book sponsored by Brooklyn for Peace, with many Jewish community activists present, it was breathtaking to see Leonard suddenly as out of nowhere give them a lively speech such as he would not have given in well over fifty years.  
I always found it more than a little peculiar how Leonard would insist on a certain continuity between his work with the American Council for Judaism and with Freedom House. But what seems clear to me now is that the values that Leonard lived so deeply — thoughtful religious humanism and the imperatives of civil liberty and democratic fairness in a free society — are deeply unfashionable at best and dangerously retrograde at worse to so much of American society today. In searching for a new articulation of those values in this new century, Leonard’s memory will always be for a blessing. •  
Jack Ross is the author of Rabbi Outcast: Elmer Berger and American Jewish Anti-Zionism, and the newly published The Socialist Party of America: A Complete History.

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