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Mass Leibl edited 1By BERNIE BELLAN
Shaarey Zedek Congregation now has two new fully ordained rabbis: Rabbi (and Chazan) Anibal Mass and Rabbi Matthew Leibl. Both received their “smichah” at a ceremony in New York at the Jewish Spiritual Learning Institute at a ceremony held July 1st.


Both men had begun their studies last September. In a story that I wrote back then about Matthew Leibl’s announcement that he was leaving his gig as a host on a sports radio program to begin preparations to become a rabbi, he noted that “JSLI is a liberal oriented program that prepares rabbis for the modern world. The emphasis is on ‘tikkun olam’. It targets people who already have roles in their synagogues.”
Now that they are both rabbis, it is only proper from now on to refer to them as Rabbi Leibl and Rabbi Mass, although that might take some getting used to, since most members of the Shaarey Zedek Congregation are probably quite used to addressing them by their first names. By the way, Rabbi Mass explained to me that his name “Anibal” is actually a variation of the name “Hannibal”, the great Carthaginian general who several times defeated the mighty Roman army in battle. Rabbi Mass’s father was a great fan of ancient history, he told me. Anibal’s middle name is actually “Caesar”. But – his Hebrew name is Yitzhak, he says, and that’s the name he actually grew up being called.

I sat down with the two new rabbis one recent rainy afternoon to talk about how having become rabbis will change them and their roles at the Shaarey Zedek. Since both men have had long associations with the synagogue – Rabbi Mass as Chazan for the past 15 years, and Rabbi Leibl in various capacities since 2004 (interrupted by three years of studying and working in Halifax) only to return as “Chazan Sheni” in 2010 - their having received their ordination as rabbis won’t change their roles in the synagogue very much, they both noted. And, with Rabbi Alan Green remaining in his role until March 2018, congregants shouldn’t expect to see much difference in the way any of them continue to perform their normal roles, they said during our conversation.

I turned to them and said, “Anibal, you’re known as a scholar and Matthew, you have a  reputation for quick thinking, but I wonder how you both see yourselves meshing any differently now that you’re rabbis? Are you both going to be having the same roles?”
Rabbi Leibl answered first: “I would say that we have a lot of figuring out what to do and we’re going to figure it out as we go along. For the next few months it will be a little less clear because Rabbi Green is still with us.”
Many of their duties have become defined in the past two years especially – since the Shaarey Zedek made radical changes to their Saturday morning service. “I’ve been playing the keyboard,” said Rabbi Leibl, “and Anibal’s been Chazan. I’ve been doing the Torah reading and some commentary. Whenever Rabbi Green’s been away he (Rabbi Mass) has been doing the sermons.”

I asked whether they both deliver a “drash” each Shabbat.
“You know what?” answered Rabbi Leibl. “I kind of like the way he (Rabbi Mass) does them. I do commentary during the Torah. It’s kind of like we both play to our strengths.”
“It’s the same – but different, “ noted Rabbi Mass. “Mine is more like a motivational talk and his is more technical.”
“Yes,” agreed Rabbi Leibl, “like a text study – a literary study. That came about because we needed to inject some energy into the Torah service. It was very passive – to keep people’s alertness and awakeness. It’s kind of a sports metaphor for me…it’s like doing play by play during the Torah reading.”

I said to Rabbi Leibl that I knew something about his motivation in wanting to become a rabbi. (In our 2016 interview I had written: “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. 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.”)
In that same story I had mentioned that Matthew had met his wife, Heather Wadsworth, in Halifax. Heather is now practising law in Winnipeg with the firm of Petersen King. According to her husband, she is “very excited to embrace her role as a Rebbetzin.”
Still, while I was aware of Matthew Leibl’s reasons for wanting to become a rabbi, I was curious to know more about Anibal Mass’s decision to become a rabbi.
“For me it’s almost like the congregation pushed me to take this role,” he answered. “I was already doing what a rabbi does – it would be just a title. Except that after Rabbi Green retires I will have the responsibility to write the ‘Dvar Torah’ every week.”

“What about something like counseling?” I wondered. “Do either of you have an affinity for that?”
Rabbi Leibl wasn’t sure how many people have been coming to Rabbi Green for counseling. “I think that’s an older mentality,” he suggested. “For my grandparents’ generation, if you had any kind of a problem, whether it was in your marriage or maybe your work, those people were inclined to go to their rabbi.
“I’m not sure whether contemporaries of mine…we live in a society with a real heightened awareness of mental health, so that’s out there. People talk about getting help for their mental health. I don’t know of anyone who thinks of going to their rabbi. We both get calls for a lot of rabbinic duties. Maybe it’s because Rabbi Green is still here, but so far I haven’t had a phone call for counseling.”
Later in the interview, after my recorder was off, Rabbi Leibl clarified what he had said about counseling. In an email that he sent to me subsequent to the interview, he wanted to make sure that I included a point he had made after I had turned off the recorder, when he wrote:
“It's not that I don't believe people come to Rabbi Green - I do. I'm just curious about how many people are going to contact me and Anibal specifically for counseling. Also, I think it's really important to include this point, which I think I made after the recorder was off: Counseling is an extension of building relationships. We are in the business of building relationships. We do it every day multiple times a day. In that respect, I believe we have both done a ton of counseling and will continue to.”

Rabbi Mass noted, though, that he has done some counseling “especially for people who have come to his conversion classes.” As well, he added – “for some people who come to my Torah classes on Saturday.”
He noted  that his wife (Dr. Adrienne Meyers) “has done some counseling – especially with women who were in his conversion classes. She studied in a ‘midrashah’ in Israel for a while. She was in the Israeli army. She’s very humble but she knows a lot.” (Adrienne is an expert on HIV, having worked with well-known – and now retired scientist Dr. Frank Plummer.) “She’s actually very good at counseling,” Rabbi Mass added. “She takes the role of ‘rebbetzin’ quite seriously. For her, it’s natural.”
Rabbi Mass told the story when he decided he wanted to become a rabbi, he was asked by Rabbi Steven Blane, who founded the Jewish Spiritual Learning Institute, why would he want to be a rabbi?
“Everybody likes their cantor,” Rabbi Blane suggested. “But, with a rabbi – it’s different. As a rabbi you have to step on some toes. I feel my skin got a little thicker after working here 15 years.”

I suggested that both of them had “excellent reputations as ‘great listeners’.”
“What was that?” Rabbi Leibl responded. (It’s easy to see why he was so good on radio – never at a loss for a quick quip.)
I continued: “I’ve known rabbis at the Shaarey Zedek who loved the sound of their own voice more than anything.”
“I grew up here,” Rabbi Leibl noted. “I know who you’re talking about.”

I shifted the conversation to a discussion of the impact that the radical change to the Saturday morning service has had. Has the number (of attendees) gone up, I wondered?
Rabbi Leibl disagreed that numbers are paramount in determining whether the change in style of the service has been a success. He did say that the number of attendees is up, “but more than that,” he said, “we stand by the service now as being the quality – it’s just like being on the radio. Because you have everybody tuning in, it doesn’t mean you have the best show. It means you have the most-listened-to show. We think we have the best attended and the best show. The changes that we’ve made have allowed us to infuse what we do best into the service. He (Rabbi Mass) is still leading the davening. I’m still playing the keyboard, reading the Torah, doing the ‘Dvar Torah’. This allows us to do what we do best week after week instead of being bogged down by all of this ‘Well, we’ve got to do it this way because we’ve been doing it for so long’.”

“But,” I asked, “have you been reaching younger people – because isn’t that what this is all about?”

“By young people, who are you talking about?” Rabbi Leibl countered.
“Twenty-thirty-forty-year olds,” I said.
“And how often?” Rabbi Leibl continued. “Are you talking about getting people my age (32) to come to the synagogue on a regular basis?”
“Every once in a while,” I proposed. “What does it take? Is it having music?”
“I think what it comes down to,” Rabbi Leibl responded, “is that, for most of my life growing up – and for my parents and their contemporaries, going to synagogue was, at best, a mediocre experience - mediocre spiritually, mediocre musically, mediocre emotionally, mediocre intellectually. If you left and it was a good service, you left saying ‘it was okay’.”
“That’s rooted. If you grab kids my age, your kids’ ages, none of them give synagogue much credit at all for being able to tap into anything about them – spiritually, intellectually - right? I think what we’ve done is, over the last two years, changed our service into one that can. So that people who come as guests to a bar mitzvah leave, saying ‘Hey, that was much better than I ever remember synagogue being.’
But, I wondered, just how many “young (Jewish) people there really are in Winnipeg? How many of your own peer group,” I asked Rabbi Leibl, “are still in Winnipeg?”
“Almost all of my closest friends don’t live here,” he admitted. “I went to JWC, I was part of a graduating class of 23. Some of my closest guy friends live in Toronto, San Francisco, Edmonton, Boston. But - you look at boys who are one year older than me, for example - born in 1984. They predominantly stayed in Winnipeg, so year to year, it varies so much. There’s no rhyme or reason for that.”

We returned to the subject of how people are responding to the new Shabbat service.
Rabbi Leibl observed: “These are the comments we get from people coming up to us at a kiddush luncheon so, over a period of time you go from ‘hey, that was pretty bad’ to ‘hey, that wasn’t so bad’ to ‘hey, that was kind of good.’ So, when they have their own kids and they need to start to think about where they’re going to get Hebrew training or bar and bat mitzvah training, they’re more likely to come back to the synagogue.”
“The synagogue has made a deliberate effort to welcome everyone – even those who don’t identify much as Jewish,” I suggested. “Temple Shalom has also been very welcoming to people who are only peripherally Jewish – and to non-Jews who may be married or living with Jews. Are you trying to out-Reform Reform?”
“I think we are beyond Conservative or Reform here,” Rabbi Mass answered. “It is a blessing not being affiliated to anything.”

So you wouldn’t describe it as a Conservative synagogue any more?” I asked.
“I guess our members like to describe themselves as Conservative,” Rabbi Mass said.
“But labels are a funny thing,” Rabbi Leibl noted.
“But you’re definitely liberal,” I said.
“Oh yah, I’ve often referred casually to what we do as ‘progressive conservative’,” Rabbi Leibl answered. “It seems like a lot of what we do you could probably find in Reconstructionist Judaism. There are aspects of our service that are very traditional – like our Torah service, but then there are aspects that are very non-traditional. I don’t think we’re Reform. Our prayer books are very different. If people say we’ve become a ‘Reform Synagogue’, they don’t know what we’re doing and they don’t know anything about Reform Judaism.”
“Anibal had a great line one time. In a class I said that I thought ‘we were more Reconstructionist’, and Anibal said, ‘I think we’re more under Construction-ist’.”

Rabbi Leibl went on to note all the changes that have been instituted at the Shaarey Zedek in recent years, including having a part of the cemetery where Jews and non-Jews can be buried together; “our attitude for same-sex marriages – which is over 10 years old; changes to the service; the role that women have here.”
“What about intermarriage?” I asked. I noted that I had asked Rabbi Green whether he would perform an interfaith marriage ceremony and he said that he wouldn’t, but you (Rabbi Leibl) probably would.”

“I have,” he explained, because prior to his becoming a rabbi, he was also a marriage commissioner. “I’ve done about 40 weddings; about a third of them were straight Jewish ones; a third were completely civil ceremonies; and a third of them were where one of them’s Jewish and one of them’s not Jewish.”
“Now that you’re a rabbi, can you still perform those (interfaith ceremonies) as a rabbi?” I asked.
“I think this is one of those situations where you figure it out as you go,” Rabbi Leibl answered. “I think Anibal and I would be maybe different about this. This is a complicated subject and one that will require a great deal further exploration. Maybe we can do this in an entirely different piece at a future date.”

Rabbi Mass said that he liked the approach taken by the B’nai Jeshurun Synagogue in New York. “They allow the rabbis to perform interfaith weddings, but this is what I like: The couple has to sign a document where they make a commitment to live a Jewish life and to raise Jewish kids.”
“My problem with that,” Rabbi Leibl said, “is how on earth do you enforce that?”
Rabbi Mass acknowledged the unenforceability of the document but, he suggested, “what they are saying is that if they are willing to keep a Jewish life, what is the problem of having an interfaith wedding?”

“Has there been any push-back from any in the congregation to all the changes that have been going on at Shaarey Zedek?” I wondered.
 “What I like,” Rabbi Mass answered, “is all these people who are complaining about the new services – they are here every Saturday at 10 o’clock – and they don’t miss a minute of the service.”
“I know a couple of guys, “ Rabbi Leibl continued, “and the changes we made? They didn’t sit well with them. But you can’t please everyone…I don’t think every Jewish person who wants to pray is going to be happy here. I think a lot of them will; I think the people I grew up with will. But, we’re not trying to be the only show in town. I think we’re doing something that attracts a large group of people, but not everyone. So, I say to them: ‘Go to the synagogue where you feel best.’ “

Rabbi Mass added: “I think that traditionally, if you ask people, they have the conception that ‘God is an old man saying no’, and that’s why they don’t go to synagogue…But if you come here on Saturday and listen to Matthew doing his play by play during the Torah reading, you’ll realize that it’s not ‘an old man saying no’, it’s a text that inspires you. My reading is the Torah’s message will expand you. It will take you for what you are and make you better.”