Rabbi of Perth Hebrew Congregation, Rabbi Dan Lieberman: Insights, Learnings and on Weathering Uncertain Times
(Part 1 of Rabbi Lieberman's Interview Blog is below. Part 2 will be published in the first Kesher of Term 2):
It wasn’t on his to-do list for Rabbi Dan Lieberman, his South African-born wife, Liat, and their then four small children to move to the remotest city in the world, but when opportunity came knocking in 2017 to do just that, they seized it with both hands. He chuckles, remembering the words of his mother-in-law on his wedding day, “You’d better not move to Australia.”
Not long before that they had left their home in Liverpool, where the then Rabbi of Allerton, Liverpool Shule had spent his early married life, having had a car bomb detonate in the driveway of the family home. “They put a bomb under my car and that went off. The next day, we left; we went to South Africa. I took compassionate leave.
“We were looking to move anyway. We were looking at new jobs. I’d been Rabbi at that time for just over four years in Liverpool, which is a small community; there are fewer than 2,000 Jews in the whole city,” reflected Rabbi Dan of the City of Liverpool, not 30 miles from Manchester, where he was born and raised. Added to that the UK political climate of the day, with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn rising to power, the decision to leave was an easy one for the young couple.
“Liverpool is strange in that there aren’t any jobs. I don't know if you remember all the riots in the ‘80s? The factory owners said, ‘All right, fine. If you want to go on strike, we’re just going to close everything.’ And they did, and they never reopened.
“So most young people who grow up in Liverpool either don't work, go on the dole, or they leave. The Jewish community has mainly gone. It was a much older community and old-fashioned, old thinking, but we managed to inject some life into it and it was fun. We had a great time.”
Studying to be a Rabbi in Gateshead Yeshiva – ironically at the same time his wife was there as a student from South Africa, but unbeknownst to one another – Rabbi Dan started out as a youth Rabbi in Manchester. “My whole life is a strange story. We got married at the end of 2008 and we decided, ‘Oh, we’ll go and live in Israel then and do Jewish things.’
“As you know, the financial crisis happened at the end of 2008. We arrived in Israel when there were eight shekels to the pound, and then the next week it was five shekels to the pound, so literally, we couldn’t afford it. We couldn’t find anywhere to rent. We nearly rented somebody’s bomb shelter,” the Rabbi remembers.
Arriving back in England and unemployed, the young Daniel Lieberman’s father insisted he go on the dole. “I went on the dole for two weeks then said, ‘Right, I want a job, whatever you want, whatever you give me.’ I worked for Royal Mail because I didn’t want to go on the dole. I was dragging bags of sorted mail from one side of a warehouse to the other. They wouldn’t let me use a forklift because I didn’t have a licence. It was an eye-opener.”
After a few months, a job as a youth Rabbi came up, “in a very, very fancy shule” in wealthy, leafy Bowdon, South Manchester, home to many Manchester United and Manchester City footballers. He wasn’t the first pick for the job. “They’d hand-picked this guy from Israel and they had to pretend that they were having a selection process, but they’d already chosen this Israeli guy. They said, ‘We’ll just get some other guy from 20 minutes away to attend too. That’s fine. We’ll just bring him in to the interview and do an audition for Shabbos and then we’ll say, ‘We gave it to the Iraeli guy.’”
“What they didn’t bank on was that the Israeli guy was terrible and he and his wife, just over from Israel, had no idea about English Jewry, whereas I grew up in it all. I went in super-prepped and got the job, by mistake,” noted the Rabbi of the position, which he started in mid-2009, waving good bye to his short-lived £8-an-hour Royal Mail job.
Not long after that, following the resignation of the then sitting Rabbi of Bowdon Shule, a 22-year-old Dan Lieberman was told he was in charge, pending the arrival of a new Rabbi, and he remained so for the next 11 months. “I didn’t know how to do a funeral; I had never given a sermon before; I didn’t know anything. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I had this veneer of calm, like a swan: underneath the water you’re going like crazy” offered the Rabbi of that phase of his life.
Two years later, he applied for the position of Rabbi of Allerton Shule, a small, newly-built shule in Liverpool, being appointed to the position just shy of his 25th birthday. Historic shipping canal frictions between his home town of Manchester and Liverpool made the new job’s location an unlikely pairing for the Mancunian, but the Rabbi maintains whilst, “it was weird going to live there, I very much became part of it: I was very proud of living in Liverpool and I loved it, and my community.”
Also university chaplain for the north-west of England at the time, the young Rabbi of Allerton forged deep links and enduring friendships with fellow university chaplains from other faiths. “I was so lucky to be in Liverpool because it’s a great city that really values its diversity, and so I had opportunities to do things that no other Rabbis get to do."
One such event was the Liverpool ANZAC Day event. “The one that we did in Liverpool was run by the Council of Faiths, so it was a religious service and everyone had a go. In 2016, I got to take the service: 100,000 people, soldiers, vets; a massive deal.”
In early 2017, alerted to an advertisement from the Perth Hebrew Congregation in the English Jewish Chronicle and ready to seek new horizons, Rabbi Dan quickly found himself being Skype-interviewed for the position being vacated by the then Chief Rabbi of Perth, with none other than Carmel’s Simon Lawrence on the interview panel. More in-depth, in-person discussions with the panel happened some months later in Perth, on a lightning five-day trip, with the Rabbi checking in to ‘Kathmandu’ on Facebook to put inquisitive folk in the UK off the scent.
(to be continued in the first Kesher of Term 2)
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