Definitely not a typical path to becoming a rabbi, says Winnipeg's Matt Leibl
Winnipeg sports fans were surprised last summer when Matt Leibl, co-host of The Big Show on TSN 1290, announced he was leaving after six years to become a rabbi.
Leibl admits he was sort of surprised himself.
“I didn’t feel a pull to be a rabbi,” says the 32 year-old, even though he has been a long-time volunteer at Shaarey Zedek, leading services and prayers, reading the Torah, performing weddings, officiating at funerals, and working with teens.
In particular, he didn’t feel he was religious enough, despite growing up in an observant Jewish home, attended Jewish elementary and high schools, and speaking Hebrew.
“Never once did I feel myself to be a religious person,” he says. As he grew older, he “wasn’t observant, I didn’t keep kosher. I was a secular Jew, culturally Jewish, just like all my Jewish friends.”
“I always thought to be a rabbi you had to be very religious,” he adds. “That wasn’t me.”
But people kept saying he’d be good at it, that he’d make a great rabbi due to his natural gifts for interacting with people, along with his great voice—something that is important for leading prayers and reading the scriptures.
And so it was in spring, last year, that he began to think about a change of career.
“I had a great run in radio, but it wasn’t enough anymore,” he says. “I wasn’t unhappy, but I didn’t know how long I could do it,” he says.
Through his volunteering at the synagogue, “I was working with people, being part of the milestones in their lives, walking with them through joy and grief, being involved at a much deeper level,” he says.
At the radio station, he felt he wasn’t “talking about the same kind of stuff. I decided I wanted something more out of life, to be more involved in meaningful topics, to interact with a broader range of people beyond the guys who call in to a sports radio show.”
Last August Leibl made the big change, resigning from TSN to start rabbinical studies and serve as a rabbinic intern at Shaarey Zedek.
“It’s definitely not a typical path to become a rabbi,” he says of his journey.
Although he has changed careers, one thing hasn’t changed—Leibl still doesn’t see himself as religious. But he thinks this will be to his advantage during his ministry.
Noting that many younger Jews today feel disconnected from their religion’s traditions, rules, rituals and prayers, Leibl thinks he might be exactly the kind of rabbi that is needed these days.
“I ask myself, ‘how I can reach people today?’” he says of those who don’t see Judaism as relevant to their daily lives.
“That’s when I thought a non-religious rabbi made sense,” he says. “Maybe I could connect with them.”
At the same time, he is quick to note that he doesn’t want to abandon traditions—just update them.
“There is lots in the tradition that is valuable,” he says. “But what’s more important is the spirit behind those laws.”
He thinks the things he learned from being in radio will help.
“My journalism background is an advantage,” he says of his work as a rabbi. “I can read the audience, adapt to it, be a good communicator.”
For Alan Green, Senior rabbi at Shaarey Zedek, Leibl is “a shining personality with a bright future in the rabbinate.”
On several occasions. Green urged him to pursue the rabbinate. “But Matthew's world was the world of sports, and Judaism was purely for enjoyment on the side,” he says.
Things began to fall into place, though, after Leibl came up with “some bold suggestions to completely revamp our Sabbath and High Holy Day services,” he says.
After implementing the changes, “the quality of our services jumped dramatically, says Green, adding that when Leibl saw how well the changes were received, he “was inspired to do more. The rest is history.”
With Green retiring next year, Leibl will have more opportunity to suggest changes; the plan is for him and Shaarey Zedek’s cantor, Anibal Mass, to take over as co-rabbis.
Reflecting on his career change, Leibl, who is married to Heather Wadsworth, says he has no regrets.
“Each day is so different and inspiring,” he says. “I love everything about it.”
From the May 6, 2017 Winnipeg Free Press