Opening Minds, Bridging Differences, Living Jewish Values.

Alumni Spotlights

Heschel is proud to have alumni around the world with impressive accomplishments, both personally and professionally. We will be posting these spotlights regularly and encourage you to share your stories with us. Please contact us at for more information or to send us your spotlight.

Alumni Spotlight: Rebecca Leeman '13

Rebecca Leeman (’13) has made a career out of making Jews comfortable in the workplace. Her Jewish foundation is clear: “being at Heschel gave me a foundation of knowledge around my Jewish identity and helped me love being Jewish,” she says. “I’ve actively pursued loving being Jewish since graduating [Heschel].” She was involved at the University of Michigan as the Hillel religious life chair, and went on a gap year in Israel on Nativ. 

But in the workplace? Not so much Jewish culture. “I’ve been an organizational consultant for a few years, and in each of the places [I worked] I was working on important workplace issues like culture, intellectual growth, and DEI, but I was missing the Jewish part at work.”

So she set out to create some Jewish affinity, which has been more essential than ever. The first Jewish Employee Resource Group (ERG) she founded was of a pedagogical bent, and hosted an educational seminar on the Holocaust. Their movement grew to 200 people.

“Companies need to be doing better,” Rebecca says. “I felt motivated by not knowing how exactly to speak about calling out antisemitism. That was when I realized it was bigger than having a nice support group—we had an avenue for people to be Jewish and to educate others about it. I learned those values at Heschel—about speaking up, finding your own voice in something that historically people didn’t talk about or hid in the workplace (like not drawing attention to Jewish identity).” 

The ERG hosted candid panels with over 100 people, a few of whom shared Jewish stories and helped highlight Jewish diversity within the Jewish experience. “It felt like the right thing to be doing at the time when there was a lot of fear for the first time for folks about being Jewish in America.” They did a Passover seder in the Metaverse, a conversation about the themes of Passover, of intergenerational teaching and redemption. For some, it was their first seder, and for some people it was just a seder in the gear-up to Passover and something they talked about with their families. 

Rebecca saw real change at her company. They started to accommodate Kosher options, had increased awareness and education, and interfaith experiences. She even wrote about her experience creating an ERG for eJewish Philanthropy.

Since October 7th, the importance of Jewish solidarity and kinship in non-Jewish spaces has never been clearer. “If people are looking to be ambassadors in their workplace and need support, I’d love to hear more,” Rebecca says. “I’d love to hear people’s stories—we need to stick together in solidarity.” She is happy to distribute relevant articles and resources to provide tools for Jewish ERGs, and would love to hear from her fellow Heschel alumni!


Meet Your Alumni Coordinator!

Hey folks! I’m Cleo, the Advancement Associate & Alumni Coordinator at Heschel. You may have met me at reunions (2011 & 2012) or seen my name on a lot of emails (most recently about the Benefit—May 22 at Pier Sixty!), but I wanted to take a second and tell you a bit about myself so I’m more than a name.

I started at Heschel in January of 2020—a pretty wild time to start working anywhere, frankly—and I could tell immediately that Heschel was remarkable. There’s so much thoughtfulness and care abound in this community; people pitching in to help others, joy in the activities around school, and constant communication. I didn’t realize how I’d been missing a community like this one until I started working here. And meeting you, Heschel alumni, has been such a delight. I honestly wish I’d had this community and education growing up.

I didn’t go to Heschel—I grew up in Tarrytown, just outside of the city. I have a background in writing (both creative and professional) and French Studies and went to Colby College. I’m a big reader (talk to me about Shirley Jackson and Octavia Butler) and will go to absurd lengths for good breakfast sandwiches and best campsites. I’m an Iraqi Jew—my grandmother is from Baghdad and my grandfather was from Basra. He used to read from his traditional Iraqi haggadah every Passover. 

At Heschel, I wear quite a few hats. Besides being your alumni coordinator, I collaborate with Gabe Godin (Director of Communications) on social media, write communications, plan and host events all around the school and beyond, film and photograph around the school, work with my team on the Annual Campaign and the Benefit, work with the Holocaust Commemoration Committee, and honestly a ton more. Every day is different, which I love.

Q & A

Favorite fun thing at Heschel? Salad bar. Also smelling the challah Early Childhood makes every week!

Last book read? If An Egyptian Cannot Speak English by Noor Naga

Favorite time of year at Heschel? April to June—but not why you’d think! There are so many ceremonies at the end of the year: Publishing Parties, Moving-Up Ceremonies, Faculty/Staff/Trustee Dinner, the Volunteer Breakfast, reunions, the Benefit, High School Graduation… it’s a beautiful culmination of celebrating the Heschel community and literally all its facets. 

Grandma’s favorite thing to make? Iraqi pastries called ba’aba (sesame seed-topped pastries with dates inside) and simbousik (with cheese and another with nuts and dates)

Feel free to call or shoot me an email to say hi!! | 212-784-1234 x1221

Alumni Spotlight: Theo Canter '18

“Israelis are a nation of storytellers. And our job is to amplify voices and shine a spotlight on the small and large dramas that make up Israeli life.” So says Israel Story, a podcast based in Jerusalem which makes episodes in Hebrew and English in acts similar to the structure of This American Life. Theo Canter (HS ’18), currently a senior at Oberlin majoring in cinema studies, comparative literature, and middle eastern studies, tells us about his experience as a Production Intern in summer 2022 and the act he produced in an episode. 

“Hello Operator” is about different stories of 'first' phones. The three stories covered are 1) how an Israeli teenager wanted nothing more than to not have a cellphone, 2) an excerpt from Amos Oz' memoir about the days when telephone use in Israel was a rare and surreal luxury, and finally, 3) the story I recorded, about a man with the first phone in his town in Israel, who earned both respect and jealousy.

The production process began with pitching the story to the show's producers. From there, I did some historical research and pre-interviewing to understand the story before I went into the field. I went to visit the story's subjects Tova and Doron Tzali (great grandparents of fellow Heschel classmate Gidon Kaminer) in their house in Israel, microphone in hand, and recorded our many hours of conversation. I then wrote and recorded my own narration of the story, weaving in selected moments from the interview, and added sound effects and music. There were many drafts, revisions, edits at every step of the way. I’m grateful to have worked with such a talented, patient, kind team of people at Israel Story in Jerusalem. I learned the ground skills of recording in a studio and on the street, how to get meaningful answers out of subjects, and above all how to tell a story. 

I first got to know Israel Story when they spoke at Heschel for Yom Haatzmaut in 2015 as part of their first live tour of the US. They’d been around in Hebrew for a few years and had just begun producing episodes in English. They shared of their greatest hits—I especially remember the Israeli buffalo farmer in Wisconsin who calls himself the first Israeli redneck—and gave a glimpse into why and how they produce this show. I was instantly hooked, and kept in touch with Mishy and Yochai, the producers. In my senior fall, with friends Gidon Kaminer, Kevin Chaikelson, and Elana Nussbaum-Cohen (all ’18), I created Pod In Search of Man, a five episode podcast of interesting stories from students, teachers, and our community. I went on to work for Tablet Magazine's podcast Unorthodox for my senior internship. Later, building on my knowledge and experience from Shmuel Afek's senior elective and trip to Poland, I found work at Culture-PL, a Warsaw-based history and culture podcast.

I credit Heschel as being a place where I felt encouraged to take creative risks, the kind that helped me succeed this past summer in Israel. I look back warmly on Arts Night, performing with the Harmonizers, in the musical, taking music theory class and band class, and performing original songs I wrote for Hebrew class. Through the editing process in this project and others, I was very happy to share and get feedback from former Heschel teachers and friends I've stayed in contact with, and I felt grateful to be able to come back and visit and proudly share my work. 

Listen to "Hello Operator" here.

Alumni Spotlight: Yanniv Frank '17

For Yanniv Frank (HS ’17), Sesame Street wasn’t just a show he watched as a child. Of course, the iconic puppet-based television show, which has for decades taught children their ABCs and 123s, was formative. But it would be more than that; it would prove to become a basis for his career. “Sesame has definitely been an immense inspiration for me while figuring out what my calling is and what I wanted to do,” Yanniv says.

His connections with the Sesame Street universe grew in high school, when he was introduced to Marty Robinson, who has worked at Jim Henson Productions, the genius behind Sesame Street, since 1980. While internships at Jim Henson Productions weren’t offered to high school students, the two kept in touch. Robinson told Yanniv about a prestigious puppetry intensive at Sesame Workshop in 2018, to which Yanniv applied and was accepted. 

The intensive, whose attendees were 28 puppeteers from around the world as well as instructors including Matt Vogel (one of the voices of Kermit the Frog) and Stephanie D'Abruzzo (of the original cast of Avenue Q), culminated in a video which Yanniv made with a partner. Years later, the results of the intensive led to something close to a miracle: an invitation to audition for Sesame Street The Musical. The show is now running Off-Broadway at Theatre Row, with our very own Yanniv as part of the ten-person cast. 

“I’d heard about it and was excited to see it,” says Yanniv modestly of the show he’s acting in. The cast squeezes seven shows into four days, making for a very busy weekend. And now he gets to help bring iconic characters to the stage. “We have people of all ages coming and having the time of their lives because there’s something for everybody to relate to and learn from.”

But he’s doing even more. As part of his third year of grad school at the University of Connecticut, Yanniv is also hard at work on his showcase project—one that seeks to teach mindful masculinity and emotional wellness to kids. After receiving a grant to stage a previous show (Feel Your Best Self) on emotional-social learning for children, he decided to delve deeper into this interest—one which aligns clearly with Sesame Street’s values. 

“I’ve seen a real shift in what kids are needing from the educational content they consume… there’s been quite a boost in the amount of emotional wellness that’s being taught on kids’ programs,” says Yanniv. “So through my work, what I’ve seen on Sesame Street, and through research on the tools kids need to unlearn the definition of masculinity as it currently exists, a lot lends to discovering how to feel your best self.”

Feeling your best self, as Yanniv discovered, also entails a celebration of uniqueness and selfhood. After attending three separate high schools where he was “being asked to fit into a box,” Yanniv found what he was looking for at Heschel. “At Heschel, everyone is uplifted as the person that they are and are welcomed. Our individuality lends to this beautiful mosaic of our community.” 

His senior project at Heschel was totally his own: creating a Milky White puppet for his community theater production of Into the Woods. “John Gatti, my art teacher, made sure I had all the materials I needed, helped me polish my designs, and helped with my fabrication materials. I created a character that had a dynamic to it and something that could feel like it was alive. I spent every free moment that semester in the art room working on that cow. Every lunch, every study hall—it was an experience where I really felt like I was being celebrated for the things that made me unique. I felt that my entire time at Heschel.”

Yanniv’s schedule isn’t easy; he splits his time between New York for the show and Connecticut for grad school, juggling his MFA project and his job as an Off-Broadway actor and puppeteer. But given the perfect meeting of his personal and professional goals, “it’s honestly a dream come true,” he says. To learn more or to see Yanniv in the musical, visit the website.

Alumni Spotlight: Elana Nussbaum Cohen '19

How do you foster healthy dialogue among college students discussing polarizing issues with peers? And how long does it take to write a book about it? For Narrow Bridge Fellow Elana Nussbaum Cohen ’19, it took just over a year of weekly discussions with her fellow Fellows about Israel, Palestine, Zionism, and antisemitism.

Rabbi Michelle Dardashti, Associate University chaplain for the Jewish community at Brown, created the Narrow Bridge Project to bring together Jewish student-leaders of groups engaged with Israel and Palestine advocacy on campus, including Students for Justice in Palestine, J Street U, and Brown Students for Israel. She encouraged the fellows—including Elana—to share their opinions respectfully, learn to adapt their rhetoric, and make space for other ideologies. The result is a free, downloadable guidebook entitled Love Thy Neighbor: A Guide for Tackling Antisemitism While Committing to Justice for All, with sections on the definitions and history of antisemitism, race, and Zionism, among other crucial subjects. 

“We wanted to bring out this resource to level the playing field with definitions (who are Jews? What is the land of Israel?) and questions: why is Israel so complicated, and why does it foster antisemitism in the process?”

Elana, who is studying sociology and data science, has a strong basis in Jewish history, thanks to her education at Heschel. She is also the granddaughter of Holocaust survivors. Working on the guidebook, then, exposed a series of interpersonal surprises. “I had newfound key insights in understanding how antisemitism operates—interstitiality, punching up vs. punching down, middlemen—which makes antisemitism a very unique type of oppression.” All definitions, by the way, are very helpfully included at the end of the guidebook, which has a click-through function while reading online for streamlined learning. 

“Being in a pluralistic Jewish environment surrounded by Jews [at Heschel], there were a lot of things that we just understood without needing to talk about them,” says Elana. “That wasn’t the case in college. There wasn’t that same understanding or education about what Judaism is and how there are different types of Jews. All of that was very natural coming from Heschel. But this was a way for me to explore issues further.”

Of course, discussing fraught political tensions is often difficult. But it was essential to the heart of the project. “Coming to this project, we all thought we knew a lot and had a lot of opinions, but we came together and said ‘hey, I don’t know as much about this, so let’s chat about it.’ That’s where the real learning and the real growth happens. Learning to engage with other people whose values differ is really important.” It took months, Elana says, for the group to even come up with a definition of Zionism they all felt comfortable with. “We have to engage with each other  otherwise we’ll perpetuate this lack of awareness which could aid  in perpetuating antisemitism.” 

Since the project has been completed, the fellowship has also ended. “Our goal now, broadly, is to get this resource out to other communities,” Elana says. Especially on other college campuses who might not previously have had access to such a cohesive resource. “We want other communities to use [the guidebook] to get the conversation started, to bring empathy to issues around Israel and Palestine.” To download the guidebook and learn more, visit, or feel free to reach out to Elana to bring the guidebook to your community or discuss further at