ISI Leibler, the child refugee whose family made Australia their home on the eve of the Holocaust later walked with presidents and prime ministers. He passed away in Israel this week, and it’s fair to say we’ll never see his like again.
A president of the Victorian Jewish Board of Deputies (now the Jewish Community Council of Victoria), a four-term president of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry, and a vice-president of the World Jewish Congress, he was often urgent, passionate, even abrasive.
It was his way of operating, his style of impressing on the world the need to combat antisemitism, to support Israel’s security, and famously to help free Jews imprisoned within the Soviet Union for openly supporting Israel and Zionism.
Leibler was of a generation of Jewish communal builders. He was a tireless volunteer with a deep commitment to his work and high expectations of all those who worked with him.
He figuratively raised the chins of a downtrodden cohort – Jewish arrivals on these shores after the Holocaust, many of whom had not been as fortunate as he was to escape before the walls closed in.
Timid in their antipodean surroundings, many halting in their English, they were drawn to community events at which Leibler spoke in articulate English, a university education to his credit, and with fire in his belly. His message was: be proud to be Jewish in Australia, be proud to be associated with a reborn Israel.
Antisemitism had to be fought, Israel had to be defended, and Soviet Jewry, imprisoned in remote gulags or demoralised in the apartments of Moscow and Leningrad, had to be freed to start new lives, hopefully in Israel.
Along the way, he cultivated powerful friendships. He founded a large travel business and was an intrepid globetrotter. But he never forgot his Mizrachi community in Melbourne, where he grew up in the Bnei Akiva Zionist youth movement. In his latter years, he walked the walk to Israel, where his Jerusalem home became the nerve centre of his engagement as a commentator on Jewish affairs.
Like his brother Mark and other members of the Leibler family, communal service was a way of life for Isi.
We wish his loved ones long life. Baruch dayan emet.