By July, he was known as Winnipeg’s “king of style.” Now, Jeff Lieberman is executive director of the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg and he would be the first to say this is an unexpected turn of events.
“Three months ago, I had no plans to stop what I was doing,” said Lieberman, 63, former president of Great Promotional Products Company, which he had owned since 1989.
“I loved what I did and I thought I would do it forever. “I really enjoyed every day.”
Then came the federation.
After being approached by members of the Jewish community, his first reaction was no. But the more he thought about it, the more he believed he “could really help the Jewish community in this role.”
He didn’t think he would be hired: the Federation had never before had an executive director from the business community. When they asked him to take charge, “I was shocked and surprised in a good way,” he said. “It was a real honor to be asked.”
Since then, there have been “a lot of positive messages” about his appointment, he said, adding that he hopes to bring his years of business experience to his new role, along with the skills he acquired and the relationships he built as chairman of the board of governors of the University of Manitoba and president of Folklorama.
Within the Jewish community, Lieberman has been a member of the board of directors of the federation and the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba, as well as serving on the board of directors of the Rady Jewish Community Campus.
“I’m honest, hard-working and a good listener,” he said of his approach. “It’s important to listen to people, hear what they have to say… it’s about community members doing what’s best for them.”
That said, he acknowledged that there will be some differences with the business world. “I’m used to making decisions pretty quickly,” she said. “That will be an adjustment.”
As he looks to the future, Lieberman sees opportunities and challenges. The greatest asset is the Jewish community itself, which is estimated at around 14,000 people.
“It’s an amazing group that cares about the Jewish community in Winnipeg,” he said.
Among the challenges are the aging Jewish population in Winnipeg and the need to involve younger people in donations to support the federation.
“Younger generations’ giving is different from their parents and grandparents,” he said, noting that they face pressures from the cost of living and buying a home. “It’s a changed world for them.”
What he wants to do as executive director is increase the federation’s endowment and promote Winnipeg as a destination for more Jewish immigrants from other countries.
“I’m a big believer in bringing new people here to grow the community, people who can help make Manitoba stronger,” he said, adding that immigration is the main way the Jewish community in the province will grow.
Lieberman also wants to reach out to other religious organizations and groups to explore possible partnerships, including Muslims and indigenous peoples.
“We are all one people and life is too short not to agree on everything,” he said. “We can find things to do together.”
Lieberman, the son of a Holocaust survivor, knows that racism and prejudice are concerns. However, he hasn’t experienced much of that personally.
“I know it happens,” he said. “It can be quite scary. “We want all Jews to be able to walk down the street without fear.”
An immediate concern for Lieberman is raising the $6.3 million goal for this year’s Combined Jewish Campaign, $200,000 more than last year.
The funds are used to support 12 local Jewish agencies and organizations, along with national and international programs and other initiatives.
“The funds that are raised are crucial to the benefit of those agencies,” he said, noting that costs have increased “a lot.”
“If they don’t raise more, they will be left behind,” he said.
Lieberman, a member of Congregation Shaarey Zedek, describes himself as “traditional, but not really religious.” “It is important to me to maintain Jewish traditions, but I only go to synagogue on important holidays.”
One tradition that is very important to Lieberman, and that made him want to take on his new role, is tikkun olam, the Jewish concept of repairing the world.
“It’s about kindness, treating people the way I want to be treated,” he said.
In the meantime, he will try to learn all the ins and outs of the new job.
“It’s like drinking from a fire hose,” he said. “But I really enjoy it, I like meeting members of the community, listening to them and getting their opinions on various topics. “I love Winnipeg and I love our community, and I want to work hard and do the best I can to serve them.”
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John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg’s religious pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the US and blogs about media, marketing and communications at Making the News.