Rob Menes is a man of many hats, and he is readying to try on a new one.
After four years serving Congregation Beth Shalom as its executive director, Menes is heading back to Vancouver, British Columbia, where he began his work life in the mid-1980s as an agricultural engineer.
In 2002, at the age of 45, Menes began cantorial training at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He was invested as a cantor in 2006, then served congregations in New York, New Jersey, Kansas and Nevada before coming to Beth Shalom in an executive capacity.
Menes is pivoting again, and on July 24, he will leave Pittsburgh to become a chaplain at the Louis Brier Home and Hospital’s Snider Campus, a Jewish senior citizen facility in Vancouver.
Prior to beginning his new venture, Menes sat down with the Chronicle to reflect on his time in Pittsburgh.
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You have lived in many different cities. How did you like living in Pittsburgh?
I’ve been pleasantly surprised. Pittsburgh reinvented itself. It’s a wonderful place. There is great culture here and it’s an interesting city and I have really enjoyed being here. I have not enjoyed the traffic or the roads, but it has been just a wonderful experience.
How was working in the Jewish community here, as executive director of Beth Shalom?
The synagogue here has been phenomenal. We have made great progress over these four years in every way. I started along with Rabbi Seth Adelson. We knew each other at the [Jewish Theological] Seminary. I didn’t know he was going to be here, but that was fantastic. During my four years here, I have been the luckiest executive director that I know because the rabbi, the president and I have formed a unified team for all these years. We are never in conflict. David Horvitz actually was the one who hired me, then Debbie [Firestone] took over, and between the two of them, it’s worked out beautifully. In these four years we reduced our deficit by hundreds of thousands of dollars, actually over $300,000.
How did you do that?
That would take a while to explain.
Can you give me the short version?
Just more efficient use of labor. Increased effort in fundraising. Also, an increase in dues and fees. Some of it is just basic administration, that without an executive director, it falls by the wayside. Also, membership has increased steadily every year of these four years by over 15%. We have a more dedicated membership now. It’s been a tremendous success actually.
So that begs the question: Why are you leaving?
There are two major issues. One is my family. I have family in Vancouver, my kids are there, my grandchildren are in Vancouver. And I have a lot of friends there, still, from my years there. So, there’s that. But the other part is — it’s hard to explain. I have tremendous respect for executive directors now. It’s an incredibly difficult job. You work behind the scenes, you don’t get the type of emotional outlet or the gratification that you would get as a cantor. In many ways, everything I loved about Judaism has been — not taken away — but kind of pushed to the background. On Shabbat morning, I come to services, but I’m kind of working. So, all of my spiritual connection is not what I want it to be. So, my next position is as a chaplain in a Jewish nursing home and hospital complex.
What challenges does the Pittsburgh community face that we should address in order to have a vibrant future?
The Jewish community in Pittsburgh is very strong in so many ways. Actually, it reflects Pittsburgh in many ways. People leave Pittsburgh and come back, right? It’s a community that will stay strong because families here are strong.However, there has to be some self-reflection in the community to recognize that some congregations have to consolidate, they have to come together. We just cannot sustain the number of congregations we have. And also, there needs to be some recognition that there are some divisions in the Jewish community, particularly between what I see as the Orthodox community and the non-Orthodox, the Conservative and the Reform movements. There really needs to be a coming together of those. I see that as an issue.
How have you seen the Orthodox/non-Orthodox divide manifest itself, and how would you address it?
It’s interesting because if you look at events that are held, open events, public events, they often reflect either the Orthodox communities or the non-Orthodox communities. You can see just by the attendance, even though they are public, even though they are open. I must admit, that after the October 27 events we did come together to some degree, but even then there were some difficulties — when we held the funerals and things like that, there were some divisions that were evident. I think we can do a better job of coming together.
Actually, we have made some moves at Beth Shalom to bring together communities, and it is working. Like our caterer here, Elegant Edge. We have decided to have a caterer that operates under the Vaad. Our kitchen now is under Vaad supervision, and as a result we are having more and more events from the Orthodox community here, and that could only be a good thing for bringing the various communities together.
Any other advice you have for Jewish Pittsburgh going forward to make the community stronger, to make it more vibrant?
Consolidation is a big thing. And of course, people are really worried about security. That actually has brought a lot of us together as a good thing, and we need to keep that up. I would like to see the Jewish community as a whole embrace more music, more dance, more artistic opportunities in Judaism. That would be a wonderful way to bring communities together.
What else would you like to say?
I’ve learned a lot being here. I’ve enjoyed Beth Shalom, I’ve enjoyed the people I’ve been with. The staff at Beth Shalom has been fantastic. I just can’t say enough. It’s been a great experience. I’m glad I had the chance to come here. pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at email@example.com