Friday, September 29, 2017

Remembering Dick Lobenthal - A Legend

And the king said to his soldiers, “You well know that a prince, a great man of the Jewish people, has fallen this day" (II Samuel, 2:38).

I took Richard Lobenthal out for breakfast six years ago with the purpose of interviewing him about his life. My editor at The Detroit Jewish News gave me the go-ahead to write an extensive article about Dick's career with the ADL (Anti-Defamation League), which spanned four decades. At that breakfast I took copious notes -- over 10 pages filled with anecdotes from a decades-long mission of fighting hate. Several times over the past 6 years I considered writing that article, but it always felt too soon. I felt that if the article was published, he would soon die. So, I never wrote that article, but I still have the notes and plan to write it this year.

With Dick Lobenthal at the Anti-Defamation League's Centennial Celebration in 2013


I first met Dick Lobenthal at Michigan State University because he was the guy we called whenever there was anti-Semitism on campus or an anti-Israel speaker was coming. I got to know him very well in the summer of 1996 when Daniel Harold and I were his interns at the ADL office in Southfield. After that summer, I returned to MSU to discuss my summer "field experience" with my professor, Michael Schechter. He asked what I thought of my time at the ADL and I said something to the effect of, "This summer I had the honor to get to know a Living Legend."

Watching as Abe Foxman greets Richard Lobenthal at the ADL's Centennial Celebration in Detroit


The last time I saw Dick was when I took him out for lunch before his surgery. He seemed so brave about his prognosis and kept saying that he'd rather talk about me and my family. I honestly didn't think he'd live this long after the surgery, but it shows what a determined fighter he was. Dick's daughter, Lisabeth, asked me to share some stories about this great man at his funeral:

When the Detroit Jewish News emailed me yesterday and asked me to write Dick’s obituary for the paper, I did the normal thing. I went to the Jewish News archives online and did a search for Dick’s name. My eyes got about this big! Dick Lobenthal is mentioned in about 600 different issues of the Detroit Jewish News from the early 1960's to as recently as a couple years ago. Now, that’s pretty impressive considering it means that he’s mentioned in something like 10% of all issues printed during his time here in Metro Detroit.

Now, if you think that’s impressive, consider that, in addition to being quoted in articles – mostly about combating anti-Semitic attacks both locally and abroad – and the mentions about basic ADL business, the vast majority of those mentions are promoting Dick’s speaking engagements. In addition to the radio shows, the phone calls, the letter writing, the op-ed publishing, the advocacy work, the fundraising, the reading and research that he was doing, Dick Lobenthal was doing speaking engagements all the time. Those speaking engagements were not because Dick Lobenthal liked to hear himself talk. They were because he was teaching… he was an educator. He was teaching people to love, not hate. He was preaching tolerance and understanding. And he was indefatigable in this work. Our world, as we all know, is still a very fractured place, BUT, I truly believe the world is a BETTER place because of Dick Lobenthal and the godly work that he did.

In 2005, I invited Dick Lobenthal to speak to students at the University of Michigan Hillel

Two Stories:

It was my Freshman year at Michigan State. Admittedly, I was a na├»ve, Jewish kid from Metro Detroit who hadn’t been exposed to anything! I went to Hillel Day School, was active in a Synagogue Youth Group, went to Camp Tamarack, etc. Now, here I was an 18-year-old at MSU and now involved with the Jewish Student Union. It seemed like each week that Fall, another Nation of Islam representative, Israel-basher or Holocaust denier was coming to campus. Put simply, there was A LOT of “Hate on campus.” We college kids didn’t know what to do. Do we sit in silently in the audience to witness these speeches? Do we protest? Picket outside? Sit down in the crowd and wait for them to say something offensive and then get up and walk out?


We had no idea how to act. And then I heard an older student give the answer. “Call Dick!” Wait, what did he say?! But that WAS the answer. Dick Lobenthal drove up to East Lansing THAT SAME DAY and, if you ever saw the movie Pulp Fiction, you know the Winston Wolf character. In the movie, this guy, played by Harvey Keitel, walks into the scene. All business. He says, “I’m Winston Wolf. I solve problems.” That was Dick Lobenthal. He solved problems. He made us feel safe. And in doing so, he made us feel proud to be Jews. Dick Lobenthal made generations of young Jewish students feel safe and proud of their Judaism.

The second story: I needed to do a Field Experience, an Internship, as part of my college program. The problem was that I also wanted to spend the summer of 1996 in Israel. I called Lobenthal and told him my predicament. He said, “we’ll figure it out just say you’re interning here and we’ll figure out the hours.” So, around 8 AM the first Monday after school let out, I showed up at the ADL offices in the Town Center in Southfield. I peeked into his office and he was already on the phone dealing with some Jewish guy at the GM plant in Flint who was called a Kike or something. His cowboy boots were up on the desk with him reclined, really reclined, in his high back leather chair. He stuck out his finger to tell me he’d be right with me.

When he got off the phone he said, C’mon let’s get something to eat. I told him I already had breakfast, but he said it didn’t matter. I followed him, trying to keep up, as he made his way to the McDonalds on the first floor of the building. I took off my yarmulke and when Dick insisted on buying me breakfast, I explained that since I keep kosher I wouldn’t order anything. “Really,” I said, “I’m good. Thanks anyway.” Kosher? Why the hell would you do that? McDonalds is delicious. C’mon! So, there you have it… My first time feeling marginalized as a Jew, perhaps even defamed, was by the long-time director of the Anti-Defamation League! So, I sat and while he ate, he told me his favorite dirty jokes and then used some four letter words to describe the hate mongers who had begun to use the Internet to promote their racist ideology.

We then made our way back upstairs to the ADL office where he showed me the conference room with his life-sized mannequins wearing Nazi SS and KKK Grand Dragon uniforms. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. And then pointed to the conference room table next to these scary “men” and he said, and this will be where you do your work. What?! The larger than life ADL director than invited me to come out to his farm. I never knew a Jewish person with a farm. Who is this guy? I thought. And where the heck am I?

That was Dick Lobenthal though. A living legend. His bark was always worse than his bite. He was a fighter--strong, courageous and proud. But he was really just a big teddy bear. Dick Lobenthal dedicated his life to fighting hate. He did this on behalf of so many -- For minorities, for the forgotten, for the ignored, for the underprivileged and for the downtrodden. Dick Lobenthal was my mentor. And he was my friend. Like so many, I felt safe in his presence. I will miss him terribly.

Yehi zichro baruch. May the memory of Dick Lobenthal be for blessings for all who knew him and may his tireless work battling hatred and bigotry serve as an inspiration for generations to come.

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