By BERNIE BELLAN It’s not unheard of for someone to combine sports with being a rabbi, although generally one would think of a genteel sport such as softball as being more appropriate to someone of the rabbinical persuasion, as Harvey Rosen might say.
In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s for instance, there was an Israeli wrestler by the name of Rafael Halperin who wrestled professionally in the United States and Canada, later in Israel, where he is credited with popularizing professional wrestling. An Orthodox Jew, Halperin later entered the rabbinate. (He was also a successful businessman, operating a chain of optical centres.)
I bring this up only as a preface to another interesting story about someone who has combined sports with religion: Our own Matthew Leibl (who has gone by the name Matt Leibl during his six-year radio career on local radio station TSN 1290).
Although we received a press release from the Shaarey Zedek announcing Leibl’s decision to begin studies toward the rabbinate, I have to admit that I hadn’t read that announcement, which was received Friday, August 19, until after I happened to be listening to TSN 1290 Monday morning, August 22.
I was actually riding my bike to our office when I heard a caller ask Leibl: “Matt, what’s this career move that I heard you mention you’re going to be making?”
I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard Leibl say that he was going to become more involved with his synagogue and was about to begin studying to be a rabbi. Wow! I don’t recall ever hearing an announcement like that on the radio before.
As soon as I got to the office I dashed off an email to Leibl, asking him whether we could talk about what he was about to be doing. Being the ever cordial sort that he is, Leibl responded within minutes, and we arranged to have a conversation the next day.
When we began conversing, I asked Leibl whether he preferred to be known as Matthew or Matt? (My own late brother had changed his name from Matthew to Matt when he was in his teens, I told him.)
To my surprise, Leibl said that Matt is simply a name he uses on the radio, as it has a better ring than Matthew. So, Matthew it is from now on – soon to be Rabbi Leibl.
We traced Leibl’s interesting career path that has led him to the point where he is currently. Interestingly, one of the first things he remarked upon is that he used to be a high school reporter for us back in 2001, when he attended Joseph Wolinsky Collegiate. (A look at our archives from that period also reveals Leibl’s singing talent as the star of the school musical that year, “Bye Bye Birdie”. As well, he is well known as a terrific keyboard player, having served in that role with the Chai Folk Ensemble for a number of years.)
Following completion of his B.A. at the University of Manitoba, in 2007 Leibl entered into a one-year journalism program at King’s College in Halifax. (He notes that he had his first exposure to radio hosting Sid Halpern’s Yiddish radio program from 2006-7.)
Prior to that, however, Leibl had been involved with the Shaarey Zedek from the age 19, beginning in 2004, when he became “Chazzan Sheni”. “I was also the main Torah reader for Shabbat and the high holydays,” he notes. As well, Leibl was the principal bar and bat mitzvah teacher while he was there.
I asked him whether he always had an interest in synagogue life because, quite frankly, not many individuals in their late teens remain connected to the synagogue, other than Orthodox teens. Leibl explains that he grew up in what he describes as a “traditional family”.
“We observed the high holidays,” he says. “We would go to my baba and zaide’s (Arnice and Harold Pollock, z”l, parents of Matthew’s mother, Ellen) house every Friday for Shabbes,” he says. (Leibl’s parents on his father Stewart’s side are both deceased, he explains.)
“I was always very interested in the Jewish classes at Joseph Wolinsky Collegiate “(which was what the school, now known as the Gray Academy alone, was still called back when Leibl attended), he says. As well, he loved being mentored by two cantors when he was a young man: Sanford Cohen and Gerry Daien.
“Because I was young and because I was enthusiastic, I gravitated to shul,” Leibl notes. Even when he was living in Halifax, Leibl remained close to the Jewish community, he says. Following his year at King’s College, Leibl took a job with the Atlantic Jewish Council.
In 2010 Leibl returned to Winnipeg. The Shaarey Zedek welcomed him immediately, saying he could have his old job as Chazzan Sheni back. Coincidentally, that same year radio station 1290 made the switch from an oldies format to all-sports. Leibl applied for a job there and was hired as an announcer. In time he became the host of a very popular morning show called “The Big Show”, in which he teamed with former Winnipeg Blue Bomber Troy Westwood to offer witty commentary about the world of sports, along with taking calls from listeners.
During his time as morning host, 1290’s ratings have been quite good, Leibl says. “We’re typically number four in the ratings for our time slot” (for all Winnipeg radio stations), “often as high as number two.”
Still, as much as he had been enjoying success in his radio career, along with being able to continue performing a major role at the Shaarey Zedek, Leibl says that there was something lacking in his life.
“The last couple of years I realized I’m not going to be pursuing a radio career; I wanted something more meaningful,” he observes. “Rabbi Green had asked me whether I’d be interested in being a rabbi,” so it was a natural progression to decide to enter into study for the rabbinate.
With Rabbi Green planning on retiring in 2018, Leibl says that both he and Cantor Anibal Maas will begin studies together immediately after Labour Day toward being ordained as rabbis in a program run by an organization known as the Jewish Spiritual Leaders Institute.
“JSLI is a liberal oriented program that prepares rabbis for the modern world,” Leibl says. “The emphasis is on ‘tikkun olam’ ”, he adds. “It targets people who already have roles in their synagogues.”
When asked how this quite liberal approach to Judaism squares with the Shaarey Zedek tradition, Leibl responds that “most Shaarey Zedek congregants are secular Jews – just like me.”
He goes on to say that he admits he’s not Shabbes observant, but he “doesn’t see a problem with that. The answer I get from people is that they could care less about that than ever before.”
Leibl says that his “calling is to serve the community”. He’s already made a major contribution to the new Shabbat morning service, with his keyboard stylings, in addition to his role in developing the new siddur now in use.
Given the fairly enthusiastic reception the innovations to services at the Shaarey Zedek have been receiving , Leibl expects that the gradual transition to his and Anibal Maas’s adopting a team approach to serving as joint rabbis will also be equally well received.
As for his soon-to-be abandoned role as a successful sports announcer, Leibl says that he’s received nothing but encouragement for what must be considered a radical career move, both from his colleagues and listeners. I, for one, will miss Leibl’s frequent references to his Jewish background, such as his rhapsodizing over his baba’s chicken soup. Given his candor – and quick wit, on the radio, it will be interesting to see how that translates into a career as a rabbi. Now, if he could only persuade Troy Westwood to join him on the bimah occasionally…