In July, he was known as Winnipeg’s “king of swag.” Now, Jeff Lieberman is CEO of the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg — and he’d be the first to say it’s an unexpected turn of events.
“Three months ago, I had no plans to stop what I was doing,” said Lieberman, 63, formerly president of the Great Promotional Products Company, which he had owned since 1989.
“I loved what I was doing, and thought I’d do it forever. I really enjoyed every day of it.”
Then the federation came calling.
After being approached by members of the Jewish community, his first reaction was no. But the more he thought about it, the more he came to believe “I could really help out the Jewish community in this role.”
He didn’t think he would be hired — the Federation had never had a CEO from the business community before. When they asked him to take it on, “I was shocked and surprised in a good way,” he said. “It was a real honour to be asked.”
Since then, there have been “many positive messages” about his appointment, he said, adding he hopes to bring his years of experience in business to his new role, along with the skills he acquired and the relationships he built up as chair of the board of governors of the University of Manitoba and president of Folklorama.
Within the Jewish community, Lieberman has been a board member of the federation and the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba, along with being on the Rady Jewish Community Campus board of directors.
“I’m honest, hardworking and good listener,” he said of his approach. “It’s important to listen to people, to hear what they have to say… it’s all about the members of the community, doing what’s best for them.”
That said, he acknowledged there will be some differences from the business world. “I’m used to making decisions pretty quickly,” he said. “That will be an adjustment.”
As he looks ahead, Lieberman sees opportunities and challenges. The biggest asset is the Jewish community itself, estimated to be about 14,000 people.
“It’s an amazing group who care about the Jewish community in Winnipeg,” he said.
Among the challenges is the aging Jewish population in Winnipeg, and the need to involve younger people in donating to support the federation.
“Giving from the younger generations is different from their parents and grandparents,” he said, noting they face pressures from the cost of living and buying a house. “It’s a changed world for them.”
Things he wants to do as CEO is grow 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 immigration is the main way the Jewish community in the province will grow.
Lieberman also wants to reach out to other organizations and faith groups to explore potential partnerships, including Muslims and Indigenous people.
“We are all one people, and life is too short not to agree on everything,” he said. “We can find things to do together.”
A child of a Holocaust survivor, Lieberman knows racism and prejudice are concerns. He has not experienced much of it personally, though.
“I know it happens,” he said. “It can be pretty scary. We want all Jews to be able to walk down the street without fear.”
Of immediate concern for Lieberman is raising the $6.3 million target for this year’s Combined Jewish Appeal — up $200,000 from last year.
The funds are used to support 12 local Jewish agencies and organizations, along with international and national programs and other initiatives.
“The funds that are raised are crucial for the benefit of those agencies,” he said, noting that costs have increased “so much.”
“If they don’t raise more, they fall behind,” he said.
A member of Congregation Shaarey Zedek, Lieberman describes himself as “traditional, but not really religious. It’s important for me to keep Jewish traditions, but I only go to synagogue on high holidays.”
One tradition that is very important to Lieberman, and that caused him to want to take on his new role, is tikkun olam, the Jewish concept of repairing the world.
“It’s about kindness, about treating people the way I want to be treated,” he said.
Meantime, he is going 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, getting their views on a number of topics. I love Winnipeg and I love our community, and I want to work hard and do my best to serve them.”
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John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg’s faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.