Maccabi and Moonshots: Why Big Ideas Matter

Photo via JCC Maccabi Facebook page

By Seth Cohen

We are constantly reminded that it’s the details that matter – the small things that help make the big things possible. The tireless attention to detail, the relentless pursuit of better, and the unyielding demand for commitment (and contribution). These are the things that we are reminded of day in and day out, not only in our jobs, but in our communities as well.

And then something big happens that reminds us that the true power of community is not in the small details, but in the sense of being part of something bigger than ourselves, and by feeling connected to others in deeply personal and transformative ways. Those big things remind us that there is something in a community that is stronger than membership dues and meeting agendas, it is the co-creation of moments, movements, and experiences that bind us together in both commitment and spirit.

Something like the JCC Maccabi Games that Atlanta hosted last week in a spectacular fashion.

In 21 years of living in Atlanta, I would be hard-pressed to think of an experience in my own hometown that has helped bring so many parts of a community together in a spirit of positivity. Of course, the athletes from across North America, Israel, Mexico and Panama were the center of the experience, but the epic nature of the moment reached far beyond them. Every host family, every volunteer, and every collaborative partner helped make the week exceptional, and in turn, the week helped make them feel exceptional as well. Each day pulsed with hospitality, pride and sportsmanship, and of course Jewish values represented by the six midot of the Maccabi experience: kavod (respect), rina (joy), ga’ava (pride), lev tov (big hearted), tikkun olam (repair the world) and amiut yehudit (Jewish peoplehood).

In short, it was a big thing.

While it had been 18 years since Atlanta last hosted the Maccabi games, it is actually an anniversary of an achievement from 50 years ago that has also been on my mind.

50 years ago, on July 20, 1969, the Apollo 11 mission achieved what was once considered unimaginable – landing humans on the moon. The accomplishment that was hailed by Neil Armstrong as “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” was achieved eight years after President John F. Kennedy announced the goal of landing a human on the moon by the end of the 1960’s. On that midsummer day, the world watched together, in a moment that was far more than just an event for a few. Rather, it was a global experience. For a moment, in the midst of a hot summer of racial strife and a cold war geopolitical tensions, humankind was bound together in common experience and achievement.

That was big thing. A REALLY big thing.

That’s why big things matter – because they help us transcend who we are, and they remind us of who we can be. They help us think about the world in a positive and optimistic way, a way that galvanizes our spirt and strengthens our will to seize opportunities. They don’t eliminate conflict and complaining, and they don’t eradicate the seemingly intractable challenges that exist after the “big thing” ends. But they help in big ways. And here’s why.

Communities function on the basis of lots of seemingly ‘small’ (albeit important and essential) things – the running of programs, the maintenance of facilities, and the raising of funds that resource the day-to-day work of community development. Meetings need to be held, decisions need to be made, salaries need to be paid, all to the end of providing communities with the “working capital” that allows them to sustain themselves and their members. This is the essential engine of our community, and it takes excellence and professionalism to do this work. And equally important, it takes attention and resources to support those professionals and volunteers that do this work every single day, because they sometimes get lost in the pursuit of new and shiny ideas that are both small and big.

But communities also need to function on a sense of purpose, knowledge and wonder – the kind of elements and insight that, along with the fundamental building blocks of communities, provide the jet fuel (literally and figuratively) for big things to happen. In my experience of helping communities apply optimism to their own formation, I have found that the higher a community’s aggregate measure of purpose (AMP), aggregate sources of knowledge it draws from (ASK), and amount of wondrous experiences it shares (AWE), the more it consistently can achieve big things. In turn, it’s the power of big things to foster AMP, ASK and AWE that helps maintain a community’s sustained commitment to the small things as well. That’s what happened with the Apollo 11 mission. It inspired an entire generation to believe that there was a greater purpose to humanity’s existence, that the boundaries of scientific exploration could be pushed, and that the wonder of seeing a person walk on the moon could spark millions of imaginations.

That too, I believe, is what just happened in Atlanta with the hosting of the Maccabi Games. A community of over 130,000 Jews had a moment that reminded it, as a leading national Jewish community, that it is more than a sum of organizations, affiliation rates, and campaign dollars. It is a crucible of creativity and possibility – a place where metaphorical moonshots are not only possible, but achievable. But even more than that, Atlanta reminded a national Jewish community that in a summer where the concerns of the three anti’s (anti-Semitism, anti-Israel, and anti-BDS) have dominated the national discourse, sometimes the best antidote to a feeling of communal fatigue is to give a community a moment to feel connected and, just as much, a reason to believe. Because when they believe together, they can build together.

Sure, big things aren’t easy – that’s why they are considered big things. But when they work, like they did in Atlanta last week, then the sky… or even the moon… might not be the limit.

Seth Cohen is the founder of Optimistic Labs, a community and experience design lab that helps companies, nonprofits, grantmakers and communities design optimistic solutions to complex organizational, communal and individual challenges. Seth can be reached at