On July 20, 1969, fifty years ago, the world held its breath when the first human beings set foot on the moon. This was the culmination of a monumental American effort and of an epic battle with the Soviet Union for leadership in space. It inherited the world with a breakthrough in space exploration and with a legacy of breakthrough-thinking that continues to inspire many today to lead world-changing ventures. Jewish organizations should be no exception.
On May 25, 1961, President John F. Kennedy delivered a historic speech before a joint session of Congress challenging NASA to put American astronauts on the moon and to bring them back safely to earth before the end of that decade. Kennedy’s audacious goal fell far beyond the scope of what was then known to science, math or engineering.
This kind of bold outlook is now known as ‘moonshot thinking’, which is defined by Google as a project that “addresses a huge problem, proposes a radical solution and uses breakthrough technology” which is “10x”, namely ten times better than what currently exists. The Techtarget website defines moonshot as “an ambitious, exploratory and ground-breaking project undertaken without any expectation of near-term profitability or benefit and … without a full investigation of potential risks and benefits”.
Just over eight years later, Astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin of the Apollo 11 Mission walked on the moon. Their successful journey required NASA scientists to multiple inventions that continue to serve humanity in our day-to-day lives such as water purification, cordless devices, computer microchips, joysticks and cat-scanners. Armstrong insightfully captured the moment by saying: “One small step for man. One giant leap for mankind”.
Moonshots are rare and hard. In government their require consistent long-lasting political leadership and mass-mobilization of public resources. According to Wikipedia, at its peak in 1964-1966, the Apollo space program consumed four percent of the entire federal budget of the USA and employed 400,000 people, ten times more than the current budget of NASA.
Business moonshots also require path-breaking entrepreneurships and funders to underwrite them. Peter Diamandis, one of the greatest living entrepreneurs and bestselling author of Bold: How to Go Big, Create Wealth and Impact the World, points out that the world’s biggest problems are also the world’s biggest business opportunities and that the best way to become a billionaire is to create a solution that can help a billion people. In other words, the risks are great but so are the rewards.
Nonprofit social sector moonshots are particularly challenging especially when addressing massive societal problems of poverty and vulnerability that will not get the attention of markets or governments because there is no evident financial or political rewards. Like all moonshots, they require game-changing entrepreneurial approach, as well as bold risk-embracing financial backing often by philanthropic leaders who are inspired to effectuate long-term and systemic societal transformations.
These insights are very relevant to the current condition and direction of the Jewish People. From the Jewish perspective, ‘moonshot thinking’ can be seen as a modern-day secular and universal version of the ancient ideal of ‘Tikkun Olam’. In fact, the legacy of the Jewish People is filled with ‘moonshots’ such as Avraham accepting the mission of introducing monotheism to humanity; Moses clashing with Pharaoh to prove the supremacy of the One God over the Egyptian gods; the Hebrews being commanded to be a holy nation, Goy Kadosh; and Herzl setting to establish a Jewish State in 1896. In more recent times, Birthright Israel called for bringing every young Jewish man and woman for a formative personal experience in Israel and Bereshit, an Israeli spacecraft, attempted to become the first non-governmental vehicle to land on the moon.
Yet Jewish ‘moonshots’ have generally been distinguished from the Kennedy-type and google-type moonshots in one key aspect: they focused on societal innovations as opposed to technical ones. This means that they have been inspired by ethics to advance new ways of organizing people to get things done through language, discourse, ideals, values, structures, institutions and patterns of conduct. Indeed, for thousands of years, Jews have had a dramatically outsized qualitative contribution to humanity.
Nowadays, for the first time in history, the Jewish People is able to contribute to humanity also quantitatively by deliberately improving the lives of hundreds of millions of people. This is nothing less that a new and exciting phase in Jewish history, which emanates from the confluence of four powerful forces and realities: first, the mission of being a light unto the nations continues to inspire thousands to focus their ventures on acute needs of disempowered individuals and communities. Second, technology now allows the creation of solutions that can be disseminated to many millions of people. Third, Israel serves as a huge playground for new ideas that can have a global application in healthcare, water, energy, life in arid areas, medicine or dealing with needs of people living with disabilities. Finally, a worldwide web of prosperous Jewish communities serves as a powerful support system and distribution mechanism for such innovation coming out of Israel.
Realizing these giant opportunities requires an outlook and approach that is global yet particular, ambitious yet methodic, entrepreneurial yet institutional, which leverages the global spread of Jewish communities and the power of their networks. In fact, one could easily imagine a Jewish hybrid of RAND Corporation, Bell-Labs and a Social Investment Fund combining research, policy, technology and financing to address acute challenges facing all societies, Jewish and non-Jewish.
Any day is a good day for thinking about these prospects and about the destiny of Jewish institutions. But July 20 is not just ‘any day’ but a very special day. It is the day of moonshot thinking.
Gidi Grinstein is the Founder of Reut Group, author of Flexigidity: The Secret of Jewish Adaptability, and the President of Tikkun Olam Makers (TOM) an Israeli global humanitarian project with the goal of helping 250 million people.