Remembering David Lieberman, historian, teacher, mensch

David Lieberman in Port Otway, Australia, 2020. Courtesy: Family of David Lieberman

David Lieberman, beloved husband, father, friend, mentor, leader and colleague, died in a tragic hiking accident in Lassen National Park on Saturday, Sept. 10, at the age of 69.

He died just as he and his wife of 35 years, Carol Brownstein, were beginning their retirement, on the first of many planned travels and adventures. He leaves behind Carol, his three children, George, Hannah, and Aaron Lieberman, his sisters, Lynne Ritvo and Deborah Lieberman, and countless friends and colleagues.

David Lieberman in Los Angeles, 2019. Courtesy: Family of David Lieberman

David was, for all who knew him, a mensch: a rock of good judgment, a source of comfort, love, generosity, kindness, and wit. In both his professional and personal life, he combined an unerring instinct for the right with an insightful, compassionate, and tactful approach to the people involved. Almost every encounter with him was leavened by his sense of humor, which, when fully deployed, could reduce even the most staid of audiences to helpless laughter. An internationally respected historian of the 18th century, David focused his scholarly lens on the history of legal, political and social thought, especially in England. But his passions took him across time and space, from music (especially opera) to good wine and food, to philosophy and politics, to the great outdoors. The center of his life was his family and friends. All who had the great good luck to know him had their own experiences of his grace. Though he had come through some very difficult health challenges, including a cycling accident in 2016 that threatened to paralyze him, he never indulged in self-pity. Even in his hardest moments, he was concerned for others, worried about being a burden but also able to show his gratitude for the love that was returned to him. His courage in times of difficulty provided a model of strength for all who knew him.

David Lieberman in Cambridge, 1987. Courtesy: Family of David Lieberman.

David was born in Canton, Ohio, to Rabbi George and Sylvia Lieberman, and grew up in Rockville Center, New York. He completed high school in England when his parents took a sabbatical there, and stayed on to attend the University of Cambridge, where he took undergraduate and graduate degrees. He received his Ph.D. in history from University College, London University. After returning to Cambridge as a teaching fellow, he was then recruited by UC Berkeley Law School’s still-new interdisciplinary Jurisprudence & Social Policy Program in 1984. David was a mainstay of the program, serving as its head, and teaching its core courses. In his undergraduate seminars and lectures, notably his courses on social theory and the history of punishment, and through his mentorship, David also touched the lives of countless students, especially those among the first in their families to attend university. He was deeply committed to the ideal of a great public university, and its role in the lives of all California’s residents.

David Lieberman in Madrid, 2019. Courtesy: Family of David Lieberman

David wrote extensively and lectured around the world. He also served in a number of roles of great responsibility on campus, for which he was awarded several lifetime achievement awards, and was widely sought after for his discretion and sage advice. He was particularly proud of his role in restoring the health of the Jewish Studies Program at Berkeley, a mission that made use of his considerable diplomatic skills. David took retirement in July of this year, after 38 years of service, as the James W. and Isabel Coffroth Professor of Jurisprudence. His colleagues celebrated him at his retirement yet counted on many more years of friendship and counsel, even as he and Carol planned the next phase of their life together.

David Lieberman at the Beth El Gala, 2017. Courtesy: Family of David Lieberman.

Funeral services were held for David on Friday, Sept. 16, at Berkeley’s Temple Beth El, and he was buried on Sunday, Sept. 18, at Fernwood Cemetery, in Mill Valley. The Law School will have a memorial service for David on Oct. 10, at 4 pm, in the Warren Room; all are warmly welcome. Those who would like to remember David with a donation are encouraged to give to Beth El’s Homeless Meal Program in Berkeley, where he volunteered; to the Santa Clara Valley Spinal Injury Center, to which he was grateful for his recovery from his accident; or to the students of the Jurisprudence & Social Policy Program.

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