If you have been around politics in South Florida anytime during the last fifty or so years, you probably encountered Jack Lieberman. He was a reliable presence anywhere a liberal cause existed. He was a champion for the people who needed one. He was a self-proclaimed radical, nicknamed “radical Jack” decades before I was born. He embraced the persona, challenging authority, getting himself kicked out of city commission meetings, and yelling his message the entire time.
Whether he was taking over college halls in the ’70s, fighting for immigrant children locked in cages, or campaigning for a single candidate, Jack’s activism could be felt from the 1960s all the way through 2020.
Seven decades of impact by Jack Lieberman, yet it wasn’t enough.
I first met Jack Lieberman in 2004. I was a fourteen-year-old high school freshman volunteering on my first campaign — John Kerry for President.
The first time I remember seeing the towering Jack Lieberman was outside the Bayfront Park Amphitheater, where he carried a large board of political buttons for sale. I didn’t know who he was. I had no idea I’d ever see him again, let alone form a friendship that would last until his passing.
But when I heard the news that he had left us, I was reminded of what that first political button I purchased said — “Friends don’t let friends vote Republican.” It made me smile. Not because I think all Republicans are bad or unworthy of public office, but because Jack sure as hell did.
And he wasn’t afraid to tell you.
Jack and I crossed paths frequently in 2008 during the Obama campaign and regularly ever since. But it wasn’t until 2011 when I learned just how helpful his vast liberal network could be, and how far he would go to use it to stand for justice and the oppressed.
I was a few years removed from high school, but still regularly attended my alma matter’s basketball games to support a fantastic team and great coach. Krop High was an overwhelming favorite to win its first state championship that year. When it came to my attention that the Florida High School Athletic Association was on the verge of forcing the team to forfeit their entire season over a student-athlete’s immigration status, I couldn’t sit quiet.
As I organized politicians and community activists around the cause of these kids and this team, I quickly reached out to my friend Jack. Within a few days, I had organized a news conference that now (thanks to Jack) included the Florida Immigrant Coalition, and countless activists prepared to take the fight to those who were mistreating these kids. We garnered national media coverage. We drove the story into the leading spot in local news.
I got the credit, but it wouldn’t have happened without Jack Lieberman.
Throughout the years since, Jack became a go-to T-shirt vendor for my clients and anyone else who asked for a recommendation. Jack was the first call of young, progressive candidates often running for office for the first time. Not just for shirts, but for everything.
He was the guy the statewide Democratic campaigns would often use to make and distribute their own materials.
In 2018, I was at his office picking up some T-shirts and having one of our usual socialism vs capitalism debates when Jack finally jokingly admitted he was a communist. We laughed. We argued.
At some point, I took my box of T-shirts, gave Jack a hug, and looked forward to our next debate. We disagreed about a lot, but we never made it personal. And though Israel was one of our places of disagreement, I always appreciated Jack’s prideful Zionism and how he never hid it, even when he worked on other causes with people who were radically anti-Israel. He brought his Judaism and his dedication to the Jewish state with him even when those around him didn’t share it. We spoke regularly about that.
He always made sure to remind me of how much he missed the days of Israel’s more liberal governments and how he couldn’t wait for Bibi Netanyahu to be gone as Prime Minister. I always reminded him that we couldn’t condition our support for Israel on which political party was in power. After all, we weren’t anti-American just because Donald Trump was President.
“Not my President,” Jack responded.
It is hard to believe this is real, but in January of 2019, Jack and I worked together for the last time. I think it is fitting that two Jews with different political views came together to combat Islamophobia.
In Hallandale Beach, Commissioner Anabelle Lima-Taub had said that Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib might “blow up Capitol Hill.” Her comments were intended to perpetuate the idea that all Muslims have the potential to become murderous terrorists was disgusting and out of line.
I’ve been clear that I believe Tlaib is an anti-Semite, but that doesn’t justify targeting her with hate or using her to perpetuate hate against Muslims.
As the story of Lima-Taub’s comments grew, so did the public outrage. It culminated on January 23, 2019, when the Hallandale Beach Commission was set to vote on Commissioner Michele Lazarow’s agenda item to censure Lima-Taub not only for her comments, but her decision to double down on them rather than apologize or rephrase.
I was handling press for Commissioner Lazarow and one of her colleagues while Jack was organizing the crowd that was rallying outside of city hall.
On one side, Jack Lieberman and countless liberal activists and groups. On the other, Lima-Taub had organized a mix of white supremacists, Trump supporters, and Jews who she had managed to convince she was the target of anti-Semitism.
I didn’t get to stand out there with Jack. But a rally or protest left in the hands of Jack Lieberman was much like a basketball left in the hands of Michael Jordan — there wasn’t much to worry about.
On July 31, I texted Jack after learning he had been hospitalized with COVID-19. I wished him a full a speedy recovery. He thanked me. I’m looking at that text exchange as I write this and tearing up as I think of him being gone. There are no words fit to express the gratitude of so many lives Jack touched.
Truth be told, most of the people he helped, he likely never met.
On August 30, 2020, Jack Lieberman took what I imagine was a light-speed trip to whatever heaven is. I imagine him standing tall at the gates of heaven as God says, “I normally would ask what you did to warrant entry here, but in your case, the list is too long and I don’t want to sit here all day while you yell it at me through that bullhorn.” To which Jack responds: “I don’t need this stuff. Just send me back to my friends so I can keep fighting and so I can vote Trump’s ass out of office in November.”
We can’t bring Jack back. He’s one of the tens of thousands of preventable deaths brought on by the epic mishandling of the COVID-19 by the Trump administration and failures of Ron DeSantis as Governor. It didn’t have to be this way.
Jack Lieberman should be fighting for justice, equality, and dignity for those who most need a fighter for decades to come. But he leaves that work to us.
In Judaism, we are taught that our mission in life is tikkun olam, to improve or heal the world. Jack lived that. He screamed it through a bullhorn. He undoubtedly continues to scream it from the heavens. I know if he has God’s ear, he’s using it to demand intervention for those who are suffering and struggling. He’s using it to demand an end to the Trump presidency. He’s using it to demand peace, rather than pray for it.
I didn’t get to say goodbye to my friend Jack. But I felt compelled to tell my Jack Lieberman story. There are thousands of people who have their own, many undoubtedly more interesting than mine. Knowing I won’t get to argue with him anymore hurts. Knowing I won’t get to call him anymore hurts.
Knowing I don’t get to say goodbye hurts.
But on the chance that Jack can read these words, I’ll leave him with the same words he left me with — thank you, Jack.
Evan Ross is principal of Public Communicators Group, a public affairs firm that engages in lobbying, public relations, and business development.