When it comes to education, Jonathan Mirvis is all business.
Originally from South Africa, Mirvis is making waves in Israel with an innovative approach to Jewish adult education that incorporates business principles in judging schools’ effectiveness.
As the international director of the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School Institute at Hebrew University’s Melton Center for Jewish Education, Mirvis has spent much of the last six years promoting a model for adult education that is based on models used for business franchises.
“I saw this as a very, very important way of forming partnerships with communities, using the strengths of each of them,” Mirvis, who holds a doctorate in adult education from Surrey University in England, told JTA on a recent visit to Cape Town.
In Mirvis’ program, teachers undergo orientation at the Melton Institute, where they are given curricula and urged to follow teaching methods set out in a training manual.
Many of them do not have a formal background in education, but Mirvis said they can do the job as long as they are “passionate” and knowledgeable about Judaism.
The teachers then return to Melton schools worldwide to implement the curriculum and teaching methods. They are evaluated by their adult students after the third or fourth lesson, and each educational institution participating in the program is visited by someone from Mirvis’ staff at least once a year.
If the teachers are not functioning satisfactorily, the institute either gives them additional coaching or makes more substantial changes.
Currently, 63 schools in the United States, Canada, Britain and Australia are part of the Melton system, encompassing 5,500 students. More than 20,000 students have gone through Melton educational institutions. Mirvis hopes to expand the network soon to include Israel, Russia and Latin America.
Mirvis, who has directed the institute since 1991, says that in order for this franchising system to be successful, the programs must be “culturally sensitive.”
“We believe very strongly that local teachers should teach — in other words, the person who meets the customer should be someone who understands the native culture,” Mirvis said.
As is the case with business franchises, the critical issue is the maintenance of quality control. Mirvis describes the scenario as franchisees drawing on the strengths of what he calls the “mother organization.”
He says adult education is “radically different” from teaching children in terms of the challenges it faces.
“In the latter instance, the role of the teacher is to entertain and focus a captive audience — where the teacher is under no threat that the students will actually walk out. In the adult education scenario, the teacher is the one under threat: If the students are dissatisfied, they can leave,” Mirvis said.
Jeremy Wanderer, a philosophy professor at the University of Cape Town, experienced the system firsthand. He taught at London’s Melton school for three years and says the franchising method has led to the “professionalization” of adult Jewish education, which, up to now, had largely been run by local synagogues.
“Students feel that they’re part of something bigger and they like the idea that if they’re on holiday, they can possibly sit in on a Melton class elsewhere.”
Though there are certain expectations of teachers, Wanderer said that, contrary to the initial reservations of some educators, the system does not embody a McDonald’s-type approach to education.
“They are laid back and do give you lots of room to maneuver,” Wanderer said.
Wanderer describes his experience in the system as “good fun,” though he says teaching adult professionals is humbling.
“When you’re discussing an issue such as circumcision, you’ll have lawyers, ethicists and doctors,” in the room, he said, “and you’re just one voice among an adult class. You don’t get that in a shul or school setting” where the rabbi or teacher is the expert.
Leah Justin, director of the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School in Melbourne, Australia, says teachers have to love working in the schools “or they wouldn’t come at the end of a working day. One teacher said she has never been so challenged by the questions” that her adult students ask.
“She is an Orthodox Jew who has a class of many non-believers and — because it’s all about learning to understand the text — she finds her own faith tested. She finds this stimulating and feels she makes a difference when students leave a class with questions buzzing in their heads.”
Justin said, “It’s wonderful to hear students engaged in discussions right through their coffee break. There is always a dialogue. People have learned to listen to each other. Teachers make it their business to allow an opportunity for all to contribute. I think everyone feels valued.”
This school in Melbourne currently has 140 students enrolled in the two-year course. Because students have “got to have their weekly fix of Melton,” Justin said, a graduate school offering eight-week courses on a wide range of topics — from Islam to Kabbalah to King David — has been developed.
Mirvis, who has no formal business training, said he believes strongly that adult education straddles the divide between education and business.
“If adult education organizers do not have a keen entrepreneurial sense, they’re never going to succeed,” he said.
But the Melton system has its detractors, many of whom say the network promotes the wrong type of culture for an educational system. Mirvis acknowledges the criticism.
“Anybody who operates in the nonprofit world using practices from the business world always faces the question of whether they are abrogating their mission,” Mirvis said. “The very usage of business language caused a tremendous ideological problem for many educators. They felt that this was a sellout.”
The other major challenge for the Melton system is financial. Unlike a business, the Melton schools are not for profit and put a premium on education over fiscal stability.
“One has to explain to the franchisee that they’re not necessarily going to recoup their investment” — it costs about $9,000 a year to be part of the educational network — “and to articulate to them why the system is important and is a tremendous challenge.”
Critics of the system also complain of local resentment regarding an outside educational program imposing its model upon local communities. In some communities, the pluralistic nature of the syllabus — which incorporates elements of all the major Jewish religious denominations — is not well received by community members who feel their denomination may have been slighted.
But judging from the response in Israel to Mirvis’ program, Mirvis has a mandate to continue.
Earlier this year, Mirvis, 48, received the Kaye Innovation Award from the Hebrew University for his work in developing the fastest-growing international Jewish adult education network.
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.