The Last Word: Howard Libit goes from interviewer to interviewee

Howard Libit (courtesy)
Howard Libit (courtesy)

As a liaison between Baltimore’s Jewish community and the government, Howard Libit, Baltimore Jewish Council executive director, gets to see a diverse array of perspectives in the community.

His extensive background helps a lot with this, but another key to his leadership is simply speaking with others.

Libit, 48, grew up in Highland Park, Ill., two blocks away from his family’s synagogue.

“[Judaism] was a big part of our life growing up,” said Libit, who now belongs to Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. He attended Hebrew school twice a week, Sunday school, Friday night services and — most important to him — celebrated holidays with his family. The holidays were never quite complete without his mom’s matzah ball soup.

As he grew up, journalism piqued his interest. Libit studied political science at Stanford University to enter the field.

His dreams came true. In 1994, Libit became a reporter for the Baltimore Sun, where he would eventually become an editor. He covered schools, political campaigns, the general assembly, business and more.

“It was an amazing opportunity to get to know the city and its many people,” Libit said.

He still runs into legislators he met as a reporter in the early 2000s. But the most important connection he made during that time was for an article that put him in touch with a woman named Jody, whom he married in 2003. They had two kids: Elliot, who is 14, and Maya, who is 12.

As Libit began to describe them in a phone interview with the JT, he paused mid-sentence.

“I think I just heard a curse,” he muttered. “I hope they aren’t burning lunch.” After a moment, the familiar remote-work scene calmed down, and he continued. “They’re thoughtful, engaged. They both care a lot about making sure they respect other kids’ feelings. Sometimes they even get along with each other,” Libit laughed.

Eventually, Libit decided to make a career change.

“Unfortunately, the newspaper industry has encountered tough times, and it just wasn’t the future I wanted,” he said. “I loved the journalism we did there, but I reached the decision to leave the Sun basically because I was working myself too hard.”

Libit was hospitalized with pneumonia in the winter of 2009. By the spring, he felt it was the time to do something else.

However, he has no regrets about his first career.

“Part of my job at the Baltimore Jewish Council is to be a communicator, so having experience in how the media works helps,” Libit said. And he continued to use his writing skills for various outlets.

Instead of journalism, he began a career in politics, which led him to a role as the public affairs chief and director of strategic planning and policy for former Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake.

“My time at the mayor’s office was an immensely challenging period for Baltimore City,” Libit said. “I was only there for a few months when the Freddie Gray incident [happened] and riots followed. It could be immensely rewarding in terms of seeing the impact you could have but also very frustrating because there’s so much going on all the time.”

Like with the Sun, Libit has kept his connections with the city change-makers he met through this role, including Baltimore County Police Chief Melissa Hyatt and Baltimore City Council President Brandon Scott.

Then, he learned of some opportunities at BJC. Libit joined the BJC’s leadership development program and later the board. In 2016, Executive Director Arthur Abramson stepped down after 26 years, and the board asked Libit to apply for the position. The timing was perfect, because Mayor Rawlings-Blake’s time in office was also coming to an end.

Libit credits his team for the accomplishments BJC has made under his leadership.

“Howard is the type of leader that runs ideas by you because he values your input, negative and positive,” said Sarah Mersky Miicke, deputy director at BJC. “He is both kind and firm on what he expects from you and is always willing to help you through a difficult task.”

Libit is most proud of the bills they’ve helped get passed related to hate crimes, budgeting and security. “How we responded after Pittsburgh and San Diego, we reevaluated our [community] security against anti-Semitism,” he said. He’s also proud of the work BJC has done with Holocaust survivors, its virtual work during lockdown and the organization’s relationship building across different communities.

Relationship building is particularly important in this political climate, Libit said. Well before the country’s current reckoning around race, BJC was engaging with the Black community on issues such as policing. When he looks at the community, his greatest concern is the lack of conversations he sees happening across divides.

“I hope we can find a way to move past the kind of the bitterness and anger we see,” he said. “Maybe after the election, as a broader community, some of that will diminish. But I think what used to be respectful dialogue, too often now, becomes hateful.” Libit noted education can help with this, too. “If we do a better job of educating our youth today, some of the hate we’re seeing will, I hope, diminish over time.”

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