Ask What's Working, Not What's Broken

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Last week, I had the privilege of joining 30 lay and professional leaders from South Florida on the Jewish Leadership Coalition’s 2nd annual mission to Tallahassee. Florida law allows corporations to receive a dollar for dollar tax credit when they donate funds to the Step Up For Students scholarship program, which provides scholarships to children from low-income families.  The scholarship is awarded to the child, not the school, enabling the family to choose the school that is best for their child, be it public or private school.


This academic year, Jewish day schools in South Florida are receiving $4.8 million from the Step Up For Students scholarship program, but the potential exists to receive much more.  Currently, there is a cap to the scholarship fund limiting how many dollars can be donated while getting a tax credit.  Moreover, the current law has a narrow definition of low income that restricts the candidates who qualify for receiving aid.


Our broad and diverse group spent the day lobbying on behalf of proposed legislation currently in the Florida House and Senate that would raise the cap and raise the income level for eligibility.  This proposal specifically, and the goal of school choice in general, has strong bipartisan support in the Florida government including the Governor, CFO, Senate President, and the Speaker of the House.


Our meetings were productive and positive and our message was mostly greeted warmly and enthusiastically.  Irv Slosberg, who represents the 91st District, which includes Montoya Circle,  was non-committal when asked if he would vote in favor of the proposed legislation expanding Step Up For Students.  I urge you to contact his office at (561) 496-5940, communicate how important this issue is to you, and ask him to vote favorably on the pending legislation.


I am deeply grateful to the leadership of Step Up for Students and the Jewish Leadership Coalition for their efforts on behalf of the Jewish day school tuition crisis.  Over the last few years, I have participated in countless conversations, conventions, and conference calls hosted by a number of organizations, all in search of relief for parents suffocating from the burden of high tuitions.  I believe the efforts of the Jewish Leadership Coalition have not only been the most effective to date, but also have the greatest promise in creating at least a partial solution to this problem.


On the plane back from Tallahassee, it occurred to me that while so much time, energy, and money have been invested in addressing the tuition crisis, not nearly the same resources have been poured into addressing a parallel crisis in our Jewish educational system, a crisis that is affecting schools from every segment of the Jewish people.   For all of the sacrifice and money we invest in our children’s Jewish education, are we producing inspired, informed, and passionate Jewish young people?


Many teens, including those currently enrolled in orthodox schools, unabashedly admit to laxity in observance and a general disaffection with the observant lifestyle and its rigorous demands.  Many express a sentiment of, “if these practices don’t ‘do anything’ for me  – and they don’t – why should I observe them?”


For a long time, the term “at-risk teens” referred to young people leaving the traditional Jewish educational system and getting involved with dangerous substances like alcohol or drugs.  Today, “at-risk” can more broadly be used to describe children who are remaining in the system, attending our schools and Shuls and growing up in our homes, but forsaking observance privately, and even publicly.


What can we do to address this crisis, one that is growing?


Two weeks ago, BRS was privileged to host world-renowned "happiness expert," Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar.  In his seminar, he described how half a century ago, traditional psychology tried to address the at-risk population in inner cities and dangerous areas.  The question they asked was why do so many in these communities fail?  Why do they resort to drugs, why is crime high, etc.?  They came to conclusions and designed programs around attempting to address why so many fail.  In the year 2000, UNESCO did a study of 32 countries to assess the impact of these programs over 50 years.  They concluded that after millions of dollars, countless hours of manpower, and tremendous resources, the net impact of the programs on the at-risk population was ZERO.


In the 1980s, the field of Positive Psychology began and it radically changed the question.  Instead of asking why are so many failing, researchers began to ask, why do some succeed?  What makes some thrive despite their unfavorable conditions and environment?  Dr. Ben-Shahar described that researchers identified the presence of several attributes and practices that were common to those who flourished -- including optimism, resilience, volunteerism, identifiable role models, physical activity, and well as others.  They then designed programs for the at-risk population based on teaching and modeling these character traits.  In a very short time, they were able to measure fantastic results and significant impact on the at-risk population.


Dr. Ben-Shahar quoted management expert Peter Drucker who said, “The most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers.  The truly dangerous thing is asking the wrong question.”


Drawing from his presentation, it is worth considering that perhaps we are asking the wrong question when it comes to our children.  Instead of examining why some of our children are disenchanted and disillusioned with observant Judaism, let’s identify our Jewishly enthusiastic young people and ask, what’s working, why are they inspired?  I suspect we will find many of the same answers Dr. Ben-Shahar spoke about, but the exercise may reveal other variables that we can incorporate into our Jewish educational institutions and into our homes and Shuls.


Dr. Ben-Shahar described that in the search for happiness we tend to focus on what isn’t working and try to fix it.  We spend too little time examining what is working in our lives and improving and enhancing it.  He encouraged us to ask ourselves -- what are we good at? What energizes us?  What are our strengths?  What gives us strength?


Like the tuition crisis, the inspiration crisis won’t be solved overnight.  Unlike the tuition crisis, legislation and the influx of greater financial assistance will not bring a solution.  We must continue to work on communicating the relevance, meaning, and timeless values of Torah to our children and model passion, enthusiasm and devotion.  What I learned from Dr. Ben-Shahar is that in addressing the challenges that we face, instead of focusing on what’s broken alone, we need to focus on what is working and on our strengths, and then leverage the answers to those questions into a brighter future.