In Memoriam: Dr. David Lieber (1925-2008)

David Lieber was born in Poland and came to the United States at the age of 2. Raised in New York, David received his undergraduate degree (magna cum laude) from City College of New York in 1944, rabbinical ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1948, and a doctorate in Hebrew letters from there in 1951. While at JTS, David studied under Mordecai Kaplan, whose vision led to the creation of the University of Judaism (now the American Jewish University), David’s “home” from 1956 until the day he died.

While still on the East Coast, David was active in Shomer Hadati (now B’nai Akiva), the religious Zionist youth movement, and very involved in the Ramah camping movement. He was the founding director of California’s Camp Ramah, and also the founding director of Mador, the national training camp for Ramah counselors.

David served as the rabbi of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles in the early fifties, before serving briefly as a chaplain in the United States Air Force, and as the Hillel rabbi at the University of Washington and Harvard University. In 1956, he joined the faculty of the University of Judaism as Dean of Students, becoming President of the institution in 1964. He served as President until his retirement in 1993. He continued to teach at the university, imparting his wisdom to undergraduates and rabbinical students alike, including Rabbi Howard, until 2007.

Rabbi Elliot Dorff, Rector and Professor of Philosophy at AJU, says in remembering David, “Mensch is the first word that comes to mind. He had a powerful sense of empathy, and modeled that one can take the tradition seriously without being harsh. His wonderful intellect and keen ability to analyze were always tempered by a sense of proportion—he understood both how things work in the world and how they ought to work. His word was his bond. His powerful intellect didn’t get in the way of his empathy. He embodied true wisdom.”

During his career as both a rabbi and an academician, David authored over 50 articles in various publications, and served as the senior editor of the Conservative Movement’s Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary which was published by JPS in 2001. He was respected and loved both as a teacher and as an administrator.

David and his beloved Esther had four children, three of whom are physicians. Daniel, an oncologist in Los Angeles, has been working with the Jewish Healing Center since its beginning. He said, “I worked with Rabbi Howard in the past with my patients and I know how caring she can be. When [David] got sick enough Rabbi Howard arranged around the clock home care for him. There is no question that the level of care immediately improved and helped prevent medical complications.” Daniel went on to say “[my father] was a very strong person and he was trying to take care of everyone else…. He was her professor, yet she took care of him. There were rabbis, but no one that had the experience working with those who are dying…. Rabbi Howard was able to put in place good sensitive people [as round the clock care takers]. She talked to members of the family to lower concerns. She made the difference in an intolerable situation…. She really cares about people she’s dealing with. I’ve never sent a patient, Jewish or non Jewish that hasn’t loved her. People know the difference between genuine concern and paying lip service.” His advice to other families: “Get her involved as early as possible before someone is actively dying.”

Rabbi Irwin Groner, chairman of the Humash Committee that oversaw the planning and execution of Etz Hayim on behalf of the Conservative Movement, said of David in his introduction: “His firm but gentle hand is discernible everywhere…. More than all else, Rabbi Lieber has, throughout his rabbinate, been a teacher of Torah, beloved by his students, respected by his colleagues, and admired by all who continue to gain from his imparting of our sacred tradition.”

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