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Adapt (Not Just Adopt): A Conversation with Hebrew University Professor Jonathan Mirvis about Social and Commercial Entrepreneurship for Jewish Education

What do you know that the rest of us don’t?”

This is the question I am posing to today’s halutzim—the pioneers who are reshaping the Jewish landscape to more effectively nurture the generations. I’m differentiating the practice of leading game changers and status quo leaders. In each interview with a pioneer, I hear a tool, an assumption, or a virtue that I’m certain is not in general use in the Jewish community. This week, on a call to Jerusalem, I discovered someone is way ahead of me on this quest.

Photo of Jonathan Mirvis with leafy background

Dr. Jonathan (Yonatan) Mirvis, a senior lecturer in Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has already interviewed 80 educational entrepreneurs. Building on their insights, along with a decade he has spent researching and teaching the topic, Jonathan has created a new conceptual framework that he believes will have crucial implications for Jewish educators, funders and lay leaders. This framework will be published in a book titled “It’s OUR Challenge; A Social Entrepreneurial Approach to Jewish Education.”

His new approach, he explains to me, is different from traditional commercial or social entrepreneurship. Yikes! After spending months reading about both kinds of entrepreneurship, and even adding “intrepreneurship” to my lexicon, I’m already out-of-date. To catch his every word, I’m typing like crazy, making annoying click-clicks on my keyboard which he hears over the phone line.

 “Stop typing and listen.” The seasoned professor wants to make sure I’m clear about the critical differences between the types of entrepreneurship.

Commercial entrepreneurs want to make a profit. They have a product (or solution) to sell. Their challenge is to create a market for that product. He offers the iPhone as an example. No one knew they needed one, but with the right marketing everyone thinks they must have one, no matter what the cost.

Social entrepreneurs who want to create social value have a different challenge. They have a market, but this market is in desperate need for solutions and/or products they can’t afford.

He offers the example of the social entrepreneur Muhammad Yunus, who identified a vast market in Bangladesh that consisted of people who couldn’t get loans. The market, the need, was there, but there was no product or solution in sight. Yunus won the Noble Prize in 2006 for crafting “micro-credit,” a new way to bring loans to people who were destitute.

I’m comparing and contrasting Jonathan’s examples, but don’t quite see the parallel with Jewish education. I venture, “Are you saying Jewish educators have a market, and our challenge is we don’t have the product?”

“No. That’s why I’ve come up with a new approach. We as Jewish educators have a product that let’s call Judaism. Among the non-Orthodox there is a very small natural market. Our target population is not hungering for Judaism. We are selling something to people who are indifferent and who have multiple lifestyle options. ”

I begin to understand his argument for why we need a new kind of entrepreneurship. Jewish educators are neither in the business of finding a commercial market for their widgets nor in the business of finding a solution to social ills like human rights abuses or poverty. To reshape the landscape of Jewish life, we have to learn from commercial and social entrepreneurship. And  we must adapt these frameworks.

I’m ready to click-click as fast as I can to record his new approach.

Jonathan is only willing to give me a hint. “We’re going have to give an offer that you can’t refuse. Birthright got 400,000 young adults to go to Israel. PJ Library has over 100,000 subscribers for their free books with Jewish content.”

Five small boys and childs reading Jewish books

While many may contend that these success stories are due to the offering of rewards, we are all aware of the multiple free “goodies” which have never succeeded with indifferent markets.  For example, free memberships to synagogues has not swelled the pews. So in addition to taking a radical approach to pricing, successful educational entrepreneurs have additional strategies that…drum roll please…we can read about in June when Professor Mirvis’s book is released.

I take Jonathan’s warnings about commercial and social entrepreneurship seriously. I’m excited to explore the entrepreneurial tool box. And I have been alerted.  Entrepreneurial students, be prepared to adapt, not just adopt.

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