By Stephen G. Donshik
Dr. Jonathan Mirvis has just released a very exciting book, It’s Our Challenge: A Social Entrepreneurship Approach to Jewish Education. Its most surprising aspect is that it has implications not just for Jewish education providers but also for all Jewish organizations and their professional and volunteer leadership around the globe. Dr. Mirvis, who is a senior lecturer at The Hebrew University’s Melton Centre for Jewish Education , is a pioneer in teaching social entrepreneurship to students in education, nonprofit management and business administration. Although the book gives a spot-on analysis of entrepreneurship in Jewish education, its salient contribution is demonstrating not only the importance of creative and innovative thinking but also the impact that volunteer leaders and professionals can have in the Jewish community by thinking differently about what they do and how they do it.
The book is well organized and begins by presenting the basic concepts of social entrepreneurship; it illustrates these concepts with case examples that demonstrate how this approach to systematic and organizational change can be implemented within most of our Jewish communities. After defining social vision entrepreneurship, he explains how it can reshape existing communal organizations and new approaches to Jewish education for parents and children. He writes, “The underlying assumptions are that individuals should be encouraged to take responsibility for changing their social reality, and that this goal is achievable through passion, dedication, commitment and innovation.”
The myriad examples of social entrepreneurship that Dr. Mirvis offers throughout the book will cause us to rethink the accepted approaches to educational programs for every age group. For programs in Jewish education to be both effective and relevant, they will have to use the social capital of those involved to not only think out of the box but, more than that, they also should not even begin by placing themselves in the box. Without a doubt the key to the process is the role of the school’s/organization’s leadership; this book introduces them to a different way of thinking and the importance of involving people who have experience(s) with social innovation in other spheres of life in efforts to improve, redevelop and even re-create the approach to educational services.
Dr. Mirvis offers four principles for strengthening Jewish identity and continuity. These begin with the ages of the people we are trying to involve in the programs and ensuring that the programs are age appropriate. The second is developing programs that have an experiential focus that reflects the value system on which the schools’ educational philosophy is founded. Third, the personnel involved in the programs should embrace the values guiding the programs and reflect their passion and commitment in their teaching. Finally, the families need to be supportive of the educational endeavor, and this is true without regard to the age level of targets of the educational experience, beginning with early childhood education, through informal educational experiences for adolescents, and on to adult education programs.
One of the book’s strengths is that it breaks out of the myopic approach taken by too many schools and organizations when they only focus on what they want to accomplish or provide to the community without considering broader issues. Dr. Mirvis introduces the idea of extending the market boundaries for student recruitment and looking beyond who is presently participating in current educational programs. This is very instructive because often schools and organizations become so wedded to what they are currently doing and who they are currently serving that they miss opportunities to expand their programs and to reach people who are otherwise not involved.
Borrowing concepts from Clayton Christensen’s research on the private sector, Dr. Mirvis offers an important distinction between sustaining innovation and disruptive innovation and the impact of each on the school or organization. The disruptive innovation process includes 1) the rate at which consumers are abele to absorb improvements in products and services; 2) the innovateive strategy adopted by established organizations; and 3) the distinction between sustaining innovations and disruptive innovations. Sustaining innovations is developing an approach to maintain the consumers utilization of the services that are being provided. The use of these concepts enables schools and organizations to begin thinking differently about the programs they develop and whom they identify as potential participants in what they are offering to the community. Only by thinking about the students they are not reaching and the reasons why they are not attracting them can schools begin to initiate a new approach to recruit new students. Once they have developed an innovative approach it is important to sustain the process and not to assume their goal has been reached. Innovation is a continual process and not an end goal.
When the social entrepreneurship process is introduced to a school or an organization correctly, it has the potential to make a sea change in the way the organization envisions its purpose and implements its services. Throughout his review I have used the words “organization” and “school” interchangeably. This is because Dr. Mirvis’s contribution goes far beyond Jewish education. He is offering all Jewish nonprofits a special gift. It would behoove both the professional and volunteer leaders of Jewish organization to study It’s Our Challenge and to ask themselves how their school or organization stacks up in terms of an social entrepreneurial approach to identifying and implementing the purpose and values of their organization.
I strongly urge Jewish federations, Jewish Community Centers, Jewish family service agencies, and synagogues to design a study process in which their executive committees and/or boards read, review and discuss the implications of the book for their organizations. Dr. Mirvis has provided the Jewish community with a challenge, and now it is up to us to meet it and learn how we can all do our jobs better to strengthen the Jewish community and the Jewish people.
To mark the launch of “It’s Our Challenge” there will be a free Kindle download available from Amazon until Monday, June 20th 11:59 pm PST.
Stephen G. Donshik is a retired lecturer at the Hebrew University’s Rothberg International School and occasional contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy.com.