Throughout his 36-year career at the Anti-Defamation League, Richard Lobenthal was considered by many to be a living legend, both locally and nationally. On the front lines battling anti-Semitism, Lobenthal made a name for himself while trying to eradicate hatred, intolerance and bigotry. The stories he amassed were legendary as well — and anything but boring.
While infiltrating the Michigan Ku Klux Klan, Lobenthal found himself traveling home one night with a Klansman in a car loaded with dynamite. He stood in a black Baptist church in the South as it was being firebombed. He also told of the time he had to wait for the local sheriff to arrive at his burning home to save him from gun-toting Klansmen.
It was not unusual for Lobenthal to have threats against his life, forcing him to carry a loaded weapon for personal protection. Even with all his many exciting stories, it was his work teaching tolerance to young students at area schools that brought Lobenthal the most pride.
Richard Lobenthal, 83, died peacefully Sept. 26, 2017, after courageously battling a long illness.
A New York native, Lobenthal trained as a psychologist at the University of Chicago, Long Island University and New York University. Early in his career, he served as the consultant regarding intergroup relations to the Department of Labor and to the governors of Oklahoma and North Carolina. Before coming to Detroit in 1964 to become the director of the Michigan ADL region, he served as director of the Virginia-North Carolina ADL regional office.
Lobenthal was committed to fighting for social justice and defending constitutional rights for all people and protecting the rights of minorities. As the Michigan ADL director until his retirement in 1996, he brought national acclaim to the regional office through such notable projects as A World of Difference, an anti-bias education educational initiative. Lobenthal also served as the Mid-West ADL regional director and the interim director of the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) after his retirement.
He also served as the interim director and board president of the Ecumenical Council of Detroit. He served on the boards of the National Association of Independent Artists and the Michigan Psychological Association Foundation. Additionally, he was a sociology professor at Wayne State University and had a weekly radio broadcast for more than 20 years on Detroit Public Radio (WDET).
Abraham Foxman, national director emeritus of the Anti-Defamation League, said, “Dick Lobenthal was a consummate Jewish professional who tirelessly combatted anti-Semitism and hate and was not afraid to break down barriers between people to promote mutual respect. He changed many people’s lives for the better and leaves a lasting legacy to be emulated by those who seek to make a better world.”
Heidi Budaj, current Michigan Region ADL director, said, “The work we do today at the Michigan ADL is possible due to the foundation that Dick Lobenthal and his leadership built. Dick was a legend not only in our region but also across the ADL world. His passion for human rights and social justice inspired many great leaders who are still pillars of our community today.”
Rabbi Arnie Sleutelberg of Temple Shir Tikvah, who officiated at the funeral, remembered Lobenthal as “a great man and champion who was monumental. A giant who changed the world.” Sleutelberg came to know Lobenthal several years ago when they were part of a group that formed Mosaic, a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, interfaith organization in Detroit.
“He was always surprised at the esteem with which he was held. He had no ego. He was larger than life, but only because we venerated him so,” Sleutelberg said. “His devotion to social justice, his fight against bigotry in any kind was manifest in many ways. He had an understanding of America that was keen and sharp.”
“His passion for human rights and social justice inspired many great leaders who are still pillars of our community today.”
— Heidi Budaj, ADL Michigan Region director
I wanted to write Dick Lobenthal’s obituary because he was an important mentor of mine from the time I served an internship at the Michigan ADL office as a college student in the mid-1990s. At the funeral, I told of how, as college students, whenever there was an anti-Semitic incident on campus or a Holocaust denier was coming to give a lecture, our first phone call was to Dick Lobenthal at the ADL. He made us feel safe. And, in doing so, he made us feel proud to be Jews. He made generations of young Jewish students feel safe and proud of their Judaism.
Bill Brukoff, a longtime friend of Lobenthal’s, spoke at the funeral, saying, “Richard’s career wasn’t his whole life. If you asked him, he would have told you that Judith [his wife of 40 years] was his whole life. But that was only partially true. It was sharing his life with her and with his children and his friends that gave him the most joy.”
Daughter Lisabeth Lobenthal said, “Judith was the love of his life and he was the love of ours. There is a hole in our hearts. But, he kept his pledge to live until he died and he did it with courage and dignity. He told us not to grieve; that he had a blessed life. We will grieve anyway.”
His legacy will live on in the Richard Lobenthal Human Rights and Social Justice Award that has been established in his memory by past presidents of the Anti-Defamation League.
Richard Lobenthal is survived by his wife of 40 years, Judith Kovach; son and daughter-in-law, Adam and Jackie Lobenthal; daughter and son-in-law, Lisabeth Lobenthal and Patrick Thomi; grandchildren, Jamie Colecchia, Michaela and Joey Lobenthal, Aaron Ellern, Sarah Lobenthal and Michael Yanez, Ruth Lobenthal and her fiance, Chris McBride, and James Lobenthal; great-grandchildren, Cassidy Colecchia, Owin and Parker Reams, Orianna, Okira and Obadyah Yanez, and Layla Lobenthal; brother and sister-in-law, Joseph Lobenthal and Anna Green. He is also survived by his loving and faithful dog, Brandon. Mr. Lobenthal was the cherished father of the late Joshua Lobenthal and the late Debbie Kovach, and the loving brother of the late Lila Gordon and the late Stanley White.
Contributions may be directed to Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Richard Lobenthal Human Rights and Social Justice Award, c/o 6600 W. Maple Road, West Bloomfield, MI 48322, michigan.adl.org/tag/detroit; or American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU Michigan, 2966 Woodward Ave., Detroit, MI 48201, aclumich.org. Arrangements by the Ira Kaufman Chapel.
Rabbi Jason Miller Contributing Writer