For the past decade, Leslie Hoffman has worked at the center of synagogue life in the South Hills. Since late 2014, Hoffman has used her position as executive director of Temple Emanuel of South Hills to manage congregational affairs during a pandemic, work through a historic change in rabbinic leadership and help congregants navigate myriad experiences.
Hoffman is slated to retire in the fall. Before exiting her role as a dedicated communal servant, she spoke with the Chronicle about her time at Temple Emanuel, being celebrated by the congregation and what comes next.
This interview was edited for length and clarity.
You’ve had a wonderful career, not only at Temple Emanuel, but in both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors. Tell me what brought you to the congregation.
I was at a point in my life where I was ready to take on more of a full-time role. Before my twins were born, I did operations and product management at Mellon Bank. I took some time off, but having that earlier foundation helped when I eventually returned to work as the chapter manager for the National Ovarian Cancer Coalition between 2006 and 2010 and then congregational manager at Dor Hadash from 2010-2014. When Temple Emanuel’s Executive Director Saralouise Reis passed away, and the position was posted, I just thought that this would be a great place to use my nonprofit experience, my previous business experience and to step into a role that I thought I could make a difference.
What are some of the ways a congregation’s executive director makes a difference?
One of the things is that you wear a lot of different hats, and you never really know what your day will bring. I think for me, one of the biggest things I feel best about is that I’ve been able to be a support and partner with our congregants at the highest of their highs and their lowest of their lows. Whether it was in terms of family life or other circumstances, I hope I made those situations easier for people.
As you mentioned, a lot of things happen on a daily basis. What does it say that certain moments have stuck out more than others?
I think it just sort of grounds you in the realities. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day frustrations and difficulties of a job where you’re managing a building and dealing with facilities or maybe challenging community partners. At the end of the day, though, the purpose of the synagogue, in my mind, is to be there for your community and your people when they need it the most. It’s easy to lose sight of that on the day-to-day, but then you have a conversation — or an exchange with someone who will say thank you for something that you did that you didn’t even realize had an impact — and those are the moments that just bring you back to why you’re doing what you’re doing.
During your tenure, Temple Emanuel welcomed new rabbinic leadership while also navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. Why do you think the congregation transitioned so smoothly?
There’s a couple of things. We have, like most Pittsburgh congregations, many multigenerational members — in some cases, fourth-generation — whose connection and commitment runs very, very deep. It’s a testament to the organization that we have an amazing board and leadership who are very much invested in the future of Temple. We’ve also built a relationship of respect for staff in that the board is governance and the staff is management — and we work in concert together — but they allow us to do what we need to do without micromanaging. That has been a very successful model for us particularly as we’ve gone through rabbinic transitions, staff transitions and certainly through the pandemic. I think part of why we were able to respond rapidly and pivot as needed was because we were given the latitude to make decisions. That position does best serve our community.
In recent years, many synagogues have had to adapt to aging populations, declining memberships and waning interest among community members. How can synagogues be successful moving forward?
We are certainly cognizant that we can’t just be status quo and that we must continually look at how to best position ourselves to meet the changing needs. I am optimistic about the place of synagogues in communal life. We had 34 new member families this year — that’s a crazy number of new families. Looking ahead, I think there will always be a need for synagogues. I just don’t know that they’re going to look the same as they have. People are definitely still looking for ways to be in community with each other, but what that looks like I don’t know.
How about the future for synagogue executive directors, what does that look like?
I think executive directors need to have a broad skill set that transcends Jewish communal work and brings a business mindedness to situations. I think in order to be successful, they’ll have to be change leaders because change is the only constant going forward — I think we all learned that through the pandemic. You have to be ready to change, you have to be open to it, flexible, and I think that’s only going to continue.
Your leadership is often hailed by congregants and colleagues. A few weeks ago you received the Manny Award, the highest recognition offered by Temple Emanuel. What does it mean to be celebrated in this way?
Obviously, I very much appreciate the recognition and the support of the board and the congregation. I know that I’ve been appreciated and valued without a doubt. But again, I only see my work as a way to allow everyone else to thrive at Temple. And there are many, many worthy people who share their time and talents with Temple in many, many ways.
What are you most looking forward to after retiring?
Since accepting this position, the congregation has become my second family, and I’ve spent nearly as much or more time with them as I have my “real” family. I told the congregation it’s time for me to take a breath, let that pendulum swing back and refocus my energy on my husband, David, and twin sons, Philip and Eric. I’m looking forward to spending more time with them.
Is there anything else you’d like people to know?
I’m just really grateful. I’ve had the opportunity to grow in this position — both personally and professionally — to build relationships with an amazing group of congregants and co-workers. I also want people to know that I’m excited for Temple’s future as well. I know that I’m leaving, but it will be a wonderful place for the next person to step into. PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.