Alumni Success Stories

CLI Fellows are already implementing new ideas in their respective communities, serving to engage Jews in new and different ways. Many of those ideas are featured on our Synagogue Innovation Blog. Below are several examples from each of the CLI Cohorts of alumni who have had some amazing success as a result of their CLI training.

Cohort 1

Lori Shapiro - The Open Temple, Venice, CA

Open Temple’s creation story is inextricably tied to the moment when Rabbi Lori first applied to the Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI) with an idea about community organizing a spiritual start up in Venice, CA. Walking into the first day of Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI), a sixth sense inspired Marty Linksy, the lead trainer for the adaptive leadership piece of the CLI program, to choose Rabbi Lori as his fall girl. Despite Lori’s stumbling, Professor Linsky’s Socratic method proved both brutal and helpful, a rabbit hole for the rabbi to walk through, filled with discovery.

There are times in our lives that define our self-transformation. The first retreat with CLI was a moment of personal self-transformation for Rabbi Lori. With colleagues in the first CLI cohort who were entrepreneurs of communities that entered into the “Jewish Emergent Network,” CLI helped Rabbi Lori build her entrepreneurial toolbox to become a recognized change maker in the Jewish innovation world.

The Los Angeles Jewish Journal ran a cover story about The Open Temple which you can read here.

And below is a featured cable tv story about The Open Temple from Jewish Life News.

Corey Helfand - Peninsula Sinai Congregation, Foster City, CA

Corey Helfand joined CLI just after he assumed the pulpit of Peninsula Sinai Congregation. Despite the conventional wisdom that suggests getting to know your constituency before you begin to make major changes, he inherited some practices related to how the synagogue raised money that struck him as harmful to the organizational culture that he wanted to create. Fortunately he had the support systems and training of CLI to navigate a tricky situation. He describes how he moved his congregation to a free will dues model in this article.

Lizzie Heydemann - Mishkan Chicago, Chicago, IL

Mishkan Chicago, an independent, inspired, down-to-earth spiritual community in Chicago, has benefitted greatly from its relationship with Rabbi Sid Schwarz. Mishkan’s founder, Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann, participating in the inaugural cohort of the Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI) four years after Mishkan was founded. At the time, Mishkan was in transition and needed to scale. The combination of CLI’s community of practice with three of her colleagues, regular consultation with Rabbi Sid, and the adaptive leadership curriculum, really helped Rabbi Lizzi set realistic goals and approaches to scaling and growing the organization.

Since Rabbi Lizzi’s participation in CLI, Mishkan has grown from five to ten full-time staff, has begun a successful religious school, has undergone a strategic planning process to guide the organization into its next phase of growth and deepened its impact in engaging NextGen Jews and families in Chicago. Mishkan is one of seven congregations that are part of the Jewish Emergent Network, a national network of some of the most successful new spiritual communities in North America. This video provides some glimpse of what is so special about Mishkan Chicago.

Dan Kaiman - Congregation B’nai Emunah, Tulsa, OK

Rabbi Dan Kaiman was another member of CLI-Cohort 1. Serving as the assistant rabbi of Congregation B’nai Emunah in Tulsa, he knew that his scope of authority was more narrowly defined than some of the other members of the cohort. Yet CLI inspired Dan to combine his love for food and his love of Judaism to come up with a real out of the box innovation. He created the 17th Street Jewish Deli right inside the synagogue. Meeting once a month on Sunday nights, this kosher deli has become an overnight sensation, attracting not only congregants but a broader cross-section of people from all over Tulsa. Reservations for dinners need to be made in advance and, most months, the Deli is sold out. Given that the primary purpose of synagogues is to provide a place of gathering, Dan has found a way to reach Jews through their hearts, minds and stomachs.

Here is a story that appeared in the secular, Tulsa World.

My Jewish Learning did a feature on the best Jewish delis in each of the 50 states. Guess which one got listed for Oklahoma. You guessed it! The 17th Street Deli.

The 17th Street Deli even got featured on a website called Strong Towns which looks at urbanization and community resilience. In this case, it highlights how faith communities can lead to stronger overall communities.

Cohort 2

Rabbi Dan Horwitz - The Well, Detroit, MI

Here is a short video that shows a project introduced by Rabbi Dan Horwitz. It was then adopted by fellow CLI Fellow, Rabbi Michael Knopf at Temple Beth El in Richmond, VA.

Michael Knopf - Beth El, Richmond, VA

Michael Knopf was part of CLI-Cohort 2. The rabbi of one of the oldest congregations in Richmond, VA, he has breathed new life into the institution. His CLI innovation project was a Havurah Program that mixed different demographic groups in his congregation over shabbat dinners. It is still going strong well into its third year and has helped to strengthen the social capital within the congregation. Rabbi Michael has made a big impact on the larger Richmond community as he has sponsored public forums, interviewing major civic leaders in the area. This was one of several innovations that led a local newspaper to feature Michael as one of the “Top 40 Under 40 to Watch.”

Rabbi Michael has also made news in the national Jewish community with his outspoken advocacy of a more open attitude to intermarriage within the Conservative Movement. His efforts were featured in the Forward.

Michael has said about his CLI experience:

“I became a rabbi to reveal the enduring relevance of Torah and to harness our tradition as a force for justice and peace. But while I knew what I wanted to do as a rabbi and why I wanted to do it, I didn’t always know how to get it done. Through deep learning, serious mentorship, and engagement with an extraordinary community of colleagues, CLI provided me the practical skills I needed to actualize my rabbinic purpose and vision.”

Cohort 3

Sarah Bassin - Temple Emanuel, Beverly Hills, CA

Sarah Bassin serves as the assistant rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, CA but prior to that post, Sarah was the founding executive director of New Ground: A Muslim-Jewish Partnership for Change based in Los Angeles. For her CLI innovation project, she used her extensive network of contacts in both the interfaith community of LA as well as in the Jewish community to collect clothing, food and medical supplies for the children of war-torn Syria. The “BigFill” (filling a full-sized shipping container to be sent to Syria) resulted in 2.5 tons worth of supplies going to Syria. This short video clip tells the story.

Rabbi Jen Lader - Temple Israel, West Bloomfield, MI

Rabbi Jen Lader’s portfolio is youth but she wanted to develop a project that might galvanize adult members of the congregation to higher levels of engagement. Jen regularly plans and leads trips to Israel and to Europe for her teens. In conversation with several women members whose teens have participated on these trips, Jen was asked if she might consider doing such a trip for adult women. Their kids had just returned from a trip and were so excited, engaged, and inspired by the experience. The moms began questioning if perhaps there was a way for Jen to bring that level of enthusiasm to their generation through similar programming. Instead of adult education in their living rooms to build community and inspire Jewish engagement, they wanted a meaningful ‘youth group-style’ trip – something that wasn’t currently being offered for adults. They also felt strongly about a women-only space, where they could feel safe with each other, and really focus on connecting, learning, and growing. Thus the Women’s Mission to Eastern Europe planned for women in their 30s-50s. The itinerary included Krakow, Warsaw, Budapest and Vienna. Not only did the trip prove to be a highly emotional and bonding experience for the 25 women participants but Jen is now using that experience to get both the women and their husbands more engaged in the life and program of Temple Israel. You can read a stirring account of the Mission here.

Maharat Rachel Kohl Finegold - Shaar Hashomayim, Montreal, Canada

Among the changes taking place in the rabbinate in recent years is the ordination of Orthodox women by Yeshivat Maharat Taking the title of Maharat, Rabba or Rabbi, these women are literal pathbreakers and three have participated in CLI. The first was Rachel Kohl Finegold, who is serving one of the oldest and largest Orthodox synagogues in North America, Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal. Rachel’s innovation project was to engage in some intensive outreach to young Jewish professionals in their 20’s and 30’s who rarely attended worship or other activities at “the Shaar”. Nor were they engaged in any leadership roles in the congregation.

During her two years in the CLI program, Maharat Rachel launched a large array of programs under the branding “YP@the Shaar”. It included shabbat dinners at the synagogue; home study groups; a mindfulness program on shabbat mornings; film screenings; and social events. The demographic was young Jews between the ages of 25-35, both singles and young couples. The program was a huge success. Average attendance was over 50 people and shabbat dinners regularly attracted over 70 people. The synagogue now regularly sees young faces in the building and many under-affiliated young professionals have been drawn to the YP@the Shaar events. Some of the leaders of the initiative have now been put on the board of the congregation, helping to insure a bright future for the community.

Here are a few comments made by participants about the impact of the program:

“The clergy involved in YP events are very welcoming and down to earth. Their presence is not intimidating which I’ve found in past experiences with synagogue related events has been the biggest challenge…My involvement in YP @ the Shaar activities has allowed me to meet other like-minded Jews. It strengthens my link to the community where I felt it was lacking.”


“The YP events help me appreciate why the Shaar is one of the leading congregations in Montreal and in Canada, more generally its ability to reach out to various demographics and provide an inclusive and warm environment is a pivotal importance, particularly in an age where assimilation rates are on the rise.”


“Being a part of YP @ the Shaar has made me feel a huge part of the Shaar community. I literally walk in the building and feel it’s like home. It has also allowed me to get involved in other synagogue groups/committees and attend several programs which I might not otherwise have attended. … I feel that I am now connected with a greater institution/organization here in the city – and one that I am so proud to be a part of. It has also contributed to me establishing my own roots here in Montreal (rather than those of my parents, who grew up here).”


Cohort 4

Rabbi Jay TelRav-Temple Sinai, Stamford, CT

Jay TelRav serves a thriving Reform congregation but the aspirational ethos of the CLI program made him increasingly dissatisfied that, of the 1200 members in his congregation, he only saw about 300 on a regular basis. Working closely with a design team made up of members of the congregation, Sinai Circles was born– congregant-led affinity groups, comprised of 8-12 congregants, which meet on a regular basis throughout the year that bring people together based on shared interests and the Jewish values behind those interests.  

Some of the Sinai Circles established were unsurprising: the Shabbat Dinner Circle to share a love of being together on Friday evenings. But Sinai Circles also included the Temple Heads Circle, that allowed participants to share their love of the Grateful Dead; a Mom’s Night-Out Circle, to get religious school parents to enjoy each other’s company beyond “hello” at school pick up; and the Sandwich Generation Circle which supported those who were living that well-known and challenging chapter of adult life. 

The program has grown exponentially, from five circles in Year 1, to fourteen circles in Year 2 to twenty-three circles in Year 3! The leaders were also, themselves, members of the Leaders’ Circle that Rabbi Jay facilitated, focusing on effective leadership skills and reinforcing the key mission of the program: The Circle is not about the activity – it is about the relationships.  The activities together are just the vehicle for relationship building.

Rabbi Adena Blum - Congregation Beth Chaim, Princeton Junction, NJ

Adena Blum transitioned from associate rabbi to senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Chaim in Princeton Junction, NJ, while she was a CLI Fellow. That change coincided with a global pandemic and the murder of George Floyd’s at the hands of police in Minneapolis, MN. It became clear to Adena that if the congregation were to live up to its stated principles, then addressing the issue of racial justice needed to be made a priority. Beth Chaim’s Racial Justice Task Force (RJTF) became the vehicle for this work. 

The RJTF inspired Beth Chaim to commit to becoming an explicitly antiracist organization, treating every day as an opportunity to live its values on racial justice through reflection, education, and action. The Task Force also took the lead in fostering a deeper understanding among congregational members of race and racial equity in America. The initiative attracted many under-engaged members of the congregation including someone who became co-chair of the task force because it spoke to him more powerfully than anything else that the Temple had previously sponsored. 

Beth Chaim’s leadership in the area of racial justice also engaged other central New Jersey congregations, Jewish, Christian and faith communities of color. Among the highlights of Beth Chaim’s racial justice programming included a 23-Day Racial Justice Habit-Building Challenge; racial justice workshops led by a professional trainer; and an annual Juneteenth Shabbat Service.

Rabbi David Fainsilber - Jewish Community of Greater Stowe (JCOGS), Vermont

""Homegrown Judaism is a rabbinic and congregational collaboration that grew out of David Fainsilber’s CLI experience. The goal of the project is to empower members of the congregation to strengthen their bonds with one another and to give more of their volunteer time to communal projects.  Homegrown Judaism has included the creation of teams of volunteers (e.g. Ritual Team; Green Team; etc.) which, in turn, engage more and more members to bring their time and talent to the Team’s core mission. Among the outcomes of Homegrown Judaism are: an extended series of Kibbitz Conversations at member’s homes and at the shul to create connections among members; enlisting and training dozens of new Torah and Megillah chanters, as well as divrei Torah and divrei Tefillah prayer darshanim/sermonizers; the creation of an educational Mitzvah Garden and mosaic project by the Green Team; a Housing Task Force to address the housing and homelessness crisis in the 
""local community; and the creation of The Nosh, a synagogue-based bakery and café that is set to launch this summer with weekly programs, including baking demonstrations, sing-a-longs, stand-up comedy performances, and more. Homegrown Judaism has helped to create a culture at JCOGS where everyone belongs and matters.

Read more in this Kol Nidrei sermon by Rabbi David Fainsilber.

Cohort 5

Rabbi Doug Alpert-Congregation Kol Ami, Kansas City, MO

Congregation Kol Ami is a non-affiliated, progressive congregation that meets in downtown Kansas City. Rabbi Doug Alpert used his CLI Fellowship to advance Kol Ami’s commitment to radical inclusion. As the only Jewish congregation located in the central city, Kol Ami has built a reputation for being open to all those interested in exploring Judaism – all ages, ethnicities, genders, and orientations; Jews by birth and by choice; singles, couples, and families, including interfaith relationships.

The ability to clearly articulate how Kol Ami could engage constituencies that were often overlooked enabled the congregation to land a multi-year grant from the Menorah Heritage Foundation to hire a Director of Engagement. In addition to a recent influx of Jews, previously marginal to Jewish life, Kol Ami’s social justice programming is flourishing. Initiatives include a partnership addressing poverty with the Poor People’s Campaign; providing food, medical care and legal assistance to migrant farm workers in partnership with the Migrant Farmworkers Assistance Fund, headed up by two congregants of Kol Ami; and activism to get abortion rights on the ballots in four mid-western states in partnership with Planned Parenthood Great Plains. Taken together, this newfound programmatic focus has made Kol Ami a destination synagogue for Jews who were previously unengaged in the Jewish community.

Rabbi Josh Breindel-Temple Beth El, Sudbury River Valley, MA

Beth El was experiencing a slump.  The retirement of their beloved and long-serving cantor and the aftereffects of COVID had led longstanding congregants to drift away from services and school families felt disengaged from the community.

Drawing on his experience as a CLI Fellow, Rabbi Josh Breindel reached out to Scott Newman (Director of Education) to co-create an experience that would unite and energize Beth El.  “First Fridays” swiftly became a beloved part of the temple’s culture.  These evenings feature a tasty dinner, engaging storytelling, celebratory dancing and rousing music.  Although the services were designed to appeal to young families, they proved enormously popular with people of all ages, becoming a unifying, intergenerational event.

With the hiring of a new cantor, the program continued to grow and expand.  Temple groups (such as the Inclusion Committee) are invited to participate and share their projects with the community.    Congregants regularly help lead dancing and music, sometimes in conjunction with the high school students.

At a recent gathering, a senior member described “First Fridays” as an experience that give her a sense of spiritual uplift and delight.  Drawing on that success, a “Second Saturday” program is now taking shape as well. “First Fridays” have helped to draw the community together across the generations for mutual delight.

Rabbanit Bracha Jaffe-The Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, Bronx, NY

Rabbanit Bracha Jaffe spent most of her life in Israel, and was not intimately familiar with racism and its effects on life in the U.S. Her awakening began with the George Floyd incident and continued when she began speaking with people of color to hear their stories. She became aware of studies showing that the percentage of Jews of Color in the broader Jewish community was much higher than she was seeing reflected within her synagogue. 

Bracha convened a committee and embarked on a project to broaden and deepen her community’s appreciation and sensitivity for Jews of Color, and to create a space for Jews of Color to feel at home.

The committee introduced changes in the culture at HIR, fostering more awareness and acceptance of Jews of Color through both direct and subtle methods such as:

  • Youth Department including children of color to all their graphics
  • Prominently hanging a poster celebrating Jewish diversity
  • Expanding HIR’s mission statement to be “warmly embracing all Jews, regardless of affiliation, commitment, orientation, race or background.”
  • Marking MLK Jr. Day with lively discussion groups based on text study, and viewing movies on racism
  • Educating the community about the holidays of Juneteenth and Sigd which are celebrated by people of color.
  • Bringing a phenomenal Jew of Color as Scholar-in-Residence with a UJA microgrant

You are welcome to read Bracha’s Divrei Torah on this topic here and here.

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