When Len Lieberman was hired in 1981 to be the Government Affairs Director for the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, he had found his dream job. In his previous positions working for the state, he had acquired an impressive knowledge of state government and of the legislative process that would serve him in good stead. He was deeply committed to and involved in Jewish communal life, and he was a passionate believer in society's obligation to care for its most vulnerable members.
Len and Chicago's Jewish Federation were pioneers. When he was hired, he was one of the first legislative lobbyists to work full time for a Jewish Federation. Such positions now exist in almost every state. Although hired by Chicago, Len saw himself as representing the interests of the entire Illinois Jewish community. His work touched on a wide range of issues, including hate crime legislation and accommodations made for the religious practices of the Jewish community. Len's main focus, however, was on safeguarding and supporting the health care, welfare and social service programs of the Jewish Federation and ensuring that they were adequately funded, so that they could serve those in need – the ailing, the elderly, the disabled, the impoverished, the abused and the newly arrived immigrant. He cultivated legislators on both sides of the aisle, forged alliances with spokespersons for other charitable and nonprofit groups and earned the respect of lawmakers and colleagues alike over the course of a 30-year career. When middle school students from Jewish schools in Chicago visited Springfield for their tour of the state capital, he would enjoy making a presentation to them about the work of the Government Affairs Office. He had the opportunity to mentor interns in his office about the workings of state government and remained in touch with many of them over the years.
A humorous sidenote: Len's wardrobe had previously consisted of bold plaids and bright colors. Now having to represent the Jewish community during session on an almost daily basis and to speak with legislators and other state officials, Len made a hurried trip to St. Louis and bought some conservative-looking suits for himself in black, navy and pinstripe, as would befit the dignity of his new position.
Len and his wife, Gail, who had a distinguished career at the State Board of Education, were part of a wave of young Jews who came to Springfield during the expansion of state government in the 1970s and the founding years of Sangamon State University and SIU School of Medicine, most of them from Chicago, St. Louis or other metropolitan areas. Len and Gail joined Temple Israel, and both took on active roles as participants in, leaders of and generous donors to the synagogue and the Jewish Federation of Springfield.
Len served a term as president of Temple Israel, was a regular Saturday morning worshipper and was actively involved in fundraising efforts for the Temple and in ensuring the congregation's long-range financial viability. When church or college groups came to observe a Jewish worship service, he warmly welcomed them and sat with them during the refreshment hour following services to answer their questions.
For many years Len chaired the Chevra Kadisha ("sacred society"), which prepares the bodies of the deceased for burial, and which administers the congregation's plot at Oak Ridge Cemetery. In Jewish tradition, this is considered a mitzvah, a good deed of the highest order. Len organized the annual cleanup each summer by Temple volunteers of the congregational section at Oak Ridge and was appointed by the mayor to serve on the Oak Ridge Board.
Len's father had died when he was a teen, leaving his mother, Rae, to raise three young sons on her own. Len was a devoted son to Rae, who came to live in Springfield in her later years. Len and Gail were married for over 40 years. When Gail was diagnosed with cancer, Len took early retirement to care for her and to travel with her to some of the destinations on her "bucket list." Len was close to his brothers, Marcus and Arnold, and there were frequent trips to Las Vegas and Albuquerque to visit with them and their wives. In his last years, Len found comfort in spending time with his daughter, Miriam, and her husband, Matt, traveling with them or having dinner at their home, where Miriam prepared some of Len's favorite dishes.
Len's civic and communal involvement was not limited to the Jewish community. He volunteered for Parents Anonymous, was active in the alumni association of his and Gail's alma mater, Northern Illinois University, and, following his retirement, took an active role in Lincoln Land Community College's Academy of Lifelong Learning, which he served for a time as president.
Len was a diehard Chicago White Sox fan, an intrepid traveler and a lover of games of every sort – backgammon, bridge and poker. He was the convener of not one, but two, local poker groups, whose sessions he referred to as "choir practice."
Len received many honors during his life – from Northern Illinois University, from the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, and from the local Jewish community, among others. His legacy endures in the good that he accomplished through his work and through his personal generosity and kindness; his memory is a blessing.
Barry Marks was Len Lieberman's rabbi and friend for more than 40 years.