Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI): Shaping Visionary Spiritual Leaders by Rabbi Irwin Kula

Organizations throughout the American Jewish community are painfully aware that the strategies and programs that may have been effective for a previous generation will no longer meet the needs of the younger generation of Jews who have been raised in a dramatically different world than that of their parents or grandparents. Indeed, many of those organizations are already experiencing attrition and loss of market share.

We are fortunate that forward looking philanthropists and foundations have stepped up over the past two decades to fund whole fields of endeavor that are having a dramatic impact on the vibrancy of Jewish life. The Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE) has strengthened our day school system. Birthright Israel has made it possible for 400,000 young American Jews to have a direct encounter with Israel. The Foundation for Jewish Camp has provided resources to improve the quality and increase the capacity of Jewish summer camps. It is long past time for the Jewish community to begin to invest in its rabbis.

Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership believes that the Jewish community can only be as strong as its spiritual leaders. Even though the Jewish community may rank among the most secular and least devout of any faith group in America when judged by weekly attendance at services or expressed belief in God, Jews represent a community of faith and of fate whose resilience and solidarity is unparalleled in the world. Jews continue to look to their rabbis to give voice to these bonds of communal solidarity that make Jews feel so connected to other Jews all around the globe and to teach and communicate wisdom that helps people improve their lives and become better, more compassionate, loving and happier people.

This is why Clal has invested major time and resources in the training of rabbis through its Rabbis Without Borders program directed by Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu. Since its inception four years ago RWB which received a 2013 Slingshot Award designating it one of the most inspiring and innovative projects in the North American Jewish community, more than 150 rabbis have participated in its programs and become part of the RWB network.

On June 1st Clal is opening the application process for a brand new program under the aegis of Rabbis Without Borders. It is called the Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI.). CLI is designed as a two-year program for early career rabbis to encourage innovative thinking and equip rabbis to serve as transformative change agents in the communities that they serve. We are looking for rabbis who think big, prepared to dramatically re-think how synagogues function or prepared to launch a spiritual alternative to synagogues of their own design. The syllabus will integrate methodologies from the field of leadership education and innovation with the best thinking in the field of synagogue transformation. The acronym – CLI – reminds us that clergy are intended to be human vessels that create sacred communities in which Jews can find meaning and purpose (klei kadosh).

Directing CLI will be Rabbi Sid Schwarz, whose book, Finding a Spiritual Home: How a New Generation of Jews can Transform the American Synagogue (2000) helped to define the field of synagogue transformation and which offered a model for a new paradigm for the American synagogue. His most recent book, Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Community (2013) has set an agenda for much of the American Jewish community as it seeks to remain relevant and engage Next Gen Jews.

Working with Sid Schwarz will be Marty Linsky, one of the top leadership consultants in the world. Serving on the faculty of the Harvard Kennedy School since 1982, Linsky is the co-author (with Ron Heifetz) of Leadership on the Line (2002) and The Practice of Adaptive Leadership (2009). He and Ron Heifetz are also the co-founders of Cambridge Leadership Associates.

The CLI program is informed by more than a decade of work that Clal has done with rabbis and rabbinical students across the denominational spectrum. There is a gap between rabbis’ desire to provide leadership to the Jewish community and their sense that they lack the toolkit to be effective in that role. Recently graduated rabbis regularly talk about the need for a support system to help them navigate the challenges that new professionals invariably face. Because so many rabbis enter the field with a need to support themselves and their families many choose more conventional jobs even when they might have an interest in experimenting with riskier, more innovative models because the former offers a more reliable source of income.

Compared with other professions, the American rabbinate is woefully weak in the area of professional development. The lack of such support has created rabbis who feel isolated and who often face mid-career burnout. At a time when dramatic changes are taking place in American society and among the next generation of American Jews, Jewish institutions will require visionary leadership to adapt to these changes. That leadership will need to come, first and foremost, from rabbis who are still held in high esteem by Jews and who see them as the standard bearers of the Jewish tradition.

Funded by lead gifts from the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, and Alisa and Dan Doctoroff, the Clergy Leadership Incubator is designed to create an intensive mentorship program for some of the most creative and innovative rabbis entering the rabbinate from across the denominational spectrum. The challenges facing American Jewry can not be successfully met by any one denomination working in isolation. Furthermore, increasing numbers of rabbis are now being trained for a post-denominational Jewish community. The Clergy Leadership Incubator will make available to its participants the best minds and practices in the nonprofit sector around reflective practice, adaptive skills, innovative thinking and visionary leadership. Finally, it will provide as mentors to the CLI fellows the experience and wisdom of some of the most successful and innovative rabbis in the American Jewish community.

The future vitality of the American Jewish community depends on our ability to train and nurture a cadre of young, visionary spiritual leaders. No seminary can do this alone. CLI will leverage the many assets of the Jewish community and tap into the great wisdom beyond the Jewish community, to create this cadre of new rabbinic leaders for our community.

To apply for participation in the program go to

Rabbi Irwin Kula is the President of Clal: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He is also the author of “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life”.