After two decades of congregational service, Steve Hecht is stepping away from the office, the social hall and the many spaces he helped oversee as executive director at Beth El Congregation of the South Hills.
Hecht’s tenure, which began in September 1999, officially ended last week, and while his future plans include exercise, education and self-betterment, Hecht also was happy to reflect on the past.
He shared those memories, as well as future hopes with the Chronicle in an interview that has been edited due to length and clarity.
All right, Steve, let’s start at the beginning. What initially interested you in the position?
I had spent eight-plus years in leadership at Beth Shalom on the volunteer side and had many years in retail management. I also had been the operations director for the Jewish Community Center, and I was always a “shul kid.” So my love for shuls and combined business and operations background seemed to make a good fit. Besides that, my brother-in-law called me and said Beth El was looking for an executive director.
You obviously had some familiarity with the work involved, but for people who don’t know, what does a synagogue executive director do?
I was directly responsible for facility and administration oversight, catering/food service supervision, security, maintenance/housekeeping, endowment and certain operational fundraising, budgeting, grant writing and purchasing. I was also involved in leadership and vision planning, programming/communications and membership intake.
That sounds exhausting.
Many people through the years have said, “I don’t know how you do it. I could never do your job.” While that’s probably true, it’s not a job. If it’s perceived as a job then the executive director is probably doing something wrong. This is a profession that is done by people who believe they can truly make a difference in people’s lives. How many careers are there where you interact directly with the people who are creating the most memorable events in their lives?
What’s a tougher job: synagogue executive director or pulpit rabbi?
Depends on if you’re asking the rabbi or the executive director. We have a common respect for each other’s positions and realize as senior staff that we are only better as a team working together along with lay leadership. All I can tell you is that both positions are very difficult at times.
Apart from individual life cycle events, what are some of the memories you cherish from your time at the congregation?
The burning of our mortgage in 2015; the inscribing of the “Inclusion” Torah — a lightweight Torah that allows for our b’nai mitzvah students and our senior members to participate in the mitzvah of carrying a Torah; the renovation of our Sufrin Chapel, which was reconfigured and replaced the raised bimah which had not been special needs friendly and placed the reading table (shulchan) in the middle so all could feel the closeness of communal prayer; the celebration of our 100-year anniversary; obtaining the Stern Family Grant, which allowed us to dream and implement those dreams; the congregational vote to welcome the interfaith partner into our membership; the addition of the interfaith section to our cemetery; witnessing our special needs members becoming b’nai mitzvah; starting streaming services for those who are unable to attend; the hiring of Rabbi Alex Greenbaum; the initiation of the Grinspoon Life and Legacy Endowment Initiative for the Pittsburgh Jewish community; and Beth El co-chairing the national strategic plan for the North American Association of Synagogue Executives.
What do you think will be hardest about leaving?
If you ask my wife, Lynn, she might say having me home after 42 years of marriage and without a paycheck. But for me it’s always been about the membership, staff and the community. Watching kids become teenagers, go off to college and then marry, I’ll miss those interactions. And of course, the friends and colleagues you interact with along the way.
Do you have any future plans?
Not to work. I’ve been doing so for the last 49 years, since age 16. I want to work on myself. I know it sounds selfish, but after an entire career of working six days a week, and a contract that often calls for 24/7 availability, I’m ready to do something I’ve heard that others have tried: I think it’s called exercise. I’m sure I won’t like it from what I’ve read, but at least I need to try. I also signed up for Osher courses.
Anything else you’d like people to know?
The Jewish community of Pittsburgh must find more ways to collaborate and create a think tank to help ensure its shuls’ survival and sustainability. It’s going to be a bumpy ride ahead, and we have to figure out how to plan for the future together as a community. I’d also like people to know that retirement isn’t the end, it’s only the beginning. We all work hard and deserve the right to enjoy and take a break and get to know ourselves and families again. We’ve earned it, so, with that said, l’hitraot. Goodbye for now. See you again soon.
A retirement celebration for Hecht at Beth El, originally scheduled for May 17, has been postponed until Sept. 13, 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.