The Rabbi of Mobileye
Engineer Mois Navon was part of Israel’s #1 hi-tech success story. Then he made a higher choice.
Mois Navon was a California native living out the Zionist dream at a hi-tech start-up in Jerusalem when, in 2000, the "dot-com bubble" became the "dot-com crash" – leaving him and hundreds of other talented engineers unemployed.
An old colleague suggested he check out a tiny startup operating out of a house in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramot.
That startup was Mobileye, an automobile “vision system” that detects and warns drivers of potential hazards. “We’ll have an exit in two years and we’ll all cash out,” promised CEO Ziv Aviram. “This job will change your life.”
Mois took the bait and became employee #16 at Mobileye. As a founding member of the engineering team, he built the products that today dominate the autonomous vehicle (AV) market – a success that culminated in 2017 when Mobileye was purchased by leading chip manufacturer Intel for $15 billion. It was the largest hi-tech deal in Israeli history.
With financial freedom, Mois shocked friends by quitting Mobileye to pursue his dream teaching Torah.
Though the exit took 16 years, it was worth the wait. With new-found financial freedom, Mois shocked friends and colleagues by quitting Mobileye to pursue his dream as a teacher of Torah.
Aish.com visited with 55-year-old Mois at his home in the Judean Hills town of Efrat, 15 minutes south of Jerusalem, to hear his fascinating life story and expert view of the interface between Torah and science.
Mois Navon (pronounced Moe-eez, Moses in French), grew up in West Los Angeles with immigrant parents from Istanbul, Turkey. His grandparents traced their roots back to the Spanish Inquisition and spoke Ladino – sort of a Sefardic version of Yiddish that mixes Spanish, French and Hebrew.
The Navon family was traditional but not religious. “We made Kiddush on Shabbat, then went to the movies,” Mois says. Bar mitzvah was a “graduation” from the Judaism he regarded as a distraction from more “mainstream” California activities like surfing and skateboarding.
Gravitating to math and science in high school, Mois began thinking of career options. “Whenever I came up with an idea, my mom would invite over a family friend in that profession,” he says. “One night we had a doctor for dinner, but he discouraged me from becoming a doctor. Another night we had an architect for dinner, but he discouraged me from becoming an architect.”
This continued for a while, until an engineer named Ray Eshkanazi, also from Istanbul, came for dinner and said: "Become an engineer!” To seal the deal, Eshkanazi – who worked at NASA’s prestigious Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) – promised to get Mois a job.
Mois enrolled in engineering at UCLA, and already as a sophomore was employed part-time at JPL, assigned to the image processing group. In helping to create an innovative “pipeline processor” to detect cancerous cells, Mois gained top-tier expertise in programming and micro-processing.
Yet amidst the hi-tech work environs, engineering classes, fraternity life and intercollegiate athletics, Mois set his sights on something higher. “At age 7, I remember thinking, What is the point of life? That is, if death is utterly final, then life is inherently meaningless.”
As it happens, Mois’ patron at JPL – Ray Eshkanazi – was an observant Jew. “We spent hours together, eating lunch and studying Torah,” Mois recalls. “I was raised a proud Jew, but had no idea why. Ray showed me the 'why' of being Jewish. Along with giving me micro-processing manuals to study, he gave me Torah books – ‘the manual for life.’ With this I was able to understand our greater purpose of bettering both the self (tikkun ha’nefesh) and the world (tikkun olam).’”
Mobileye employs a sophisticated matrix of cameras
and sensors to scan the road for objects.
The Holy Land
In 1987, Mois married his wife Deena, spending a few years in Los Angeles designing a computer simulator for the vaunted Star Wars intercontinental ballistic missile defense system. At the cutting-edge of computer optics, Mois was unknowingly on a trajectory toward Mobileye.
As much as they loved LA, the young couple set their sights on Israel, “because it’s the home of the Jews.” Mois prayed for a path forward and two days later heard that IBM’s Israeli research branch was headhunting in LA. Mois arranged for an interview with the famous Yosef Raviv, a founder of the "Startup Nation" who in the 1970s first brought IBM to the Haifa Technion – trailblazing today’s explosion of Israel-based development offices that include Google, Intel, and Apple.
Mois is an accomplished road bike racer,
having competed in the 4-day Tour De Yisrael.
Mois had a lot riding on that initial IBM interview – and he performed miserably, providing unsatisfactory answers to the technical questions. "I was dejected and folded up my papers to leave,” he says. “But then I got to the door, caught myself, and pondered: This was your best chance to get to Israel and you blew it! So I turned myself around, went back, and told him: "You know what I don't know. Now let me show you what I do know."
Mois showed off his work samples, then put everything into a giant package and sent it to IBM Israel. The persistence paid off; two weeks later, IBM called to offer Mois a job.
In 1992, Mois and Deena packed up and – pre-Nefesh B’Nefesh – moved to Israel. With no family, friends or support structure in Israel, nor speaking the language, they relied on grit and determination to adjust. Mois continued his work developing hi-tech products: first-gen video-on-demand players for commercial airlines, encryption chips for pay-TV, and fiber-optic networking chips.
At the Mobileye IPO in 2014: Mois (R) on the floor of the
New York Stock Exchange with co-founder Ziv Aviram.
Vision and Safety
Mois’ big break came when he joined Mobileye in 2001. The company had started a few years earlier by Amnon Shashua, a computer science professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. After boasting of a hypothesis – the ability to detect 3D objects with single camera (human 3D vision requires “two” eyes) – the automotive company Toyota gave him a $100,000 grant.
Shashua successfully proved his single-camera theory, but at six frames per second – compared to the human eye at 30 frames per second – the camera was too slow to have much practical application.
That’s when Shashua and Ziv Aviram formed Mobileye and hired five design engineers – including Mois Navon – to take their algorithms and develop a self-contained computer chip for integration into any vehicle.
During a cash-flow crisis Mobileye pivoted its business model to focus on automotive safety. Under the slogan of “Our vision, your safety,” the company grew rapidly and became the world’s largest developers of autonomous driving solutions. They innovated products like HDW (Headway Monitoring & Warning) and LKA (Lane Keeping Assistance), a windshield camera that beeps when a driver gets too close to another object or leaves a lane without signaling. Mois was awarded several patents in image processing and computing hardware, and today, Mobileye’s sophisticated ADAS (Advanced Driving Assistant System) is in 30 million vehicles and dominates 70% of the market.
Mois delivers words of Torah inspiration at a company-wide Mobileye event.
Mois is bullish on the technological disruption that AVs bring to the world. “Worldwide, 1.25 million people die annually on the roads – 3,400 people every day,” he says. “Autonomous driving algorithms could reduce this to almost zero. Besides saving lives, traffic violations will almost completely disappear, and with a negligible accident rate, auto insurance will approach zero.”
Mobileye has teamed with BMW to put a fully autonomous vehicle on the road by 2021. Mobileye’s algorithms employ surround cameras to see the entire road, as well as “dynamic mapping” to constantly crowd-source data to the cloud. “If all the other cars are swerving to avoid a pothole,” Mois explains, “that information is fed into a real-time system that automatically adjusts the path of the next cars.”
Mois is especially excited about the efficiency and convenience that AVs provide. “With a fleet of robo-taxis, the blind, elderly, children – anybody can go anywhere, anytime. And these pre-programmed cars can travel at high speeds, unlimited by human reaction times.”
The Rabbi of Mobileye
Amidst the thrill of celebrating Mobileye’s IPO at the New York State Exchange – the biggest Israeli IPO ever, and celebrating Mobileye’s acquisition by Intel, deep down Mois’ heart was with Torah. He became known as the de facto "Rabbi of Mobileye," delivering words of wisdom at company gatherings, teaching a daily Torah class, officiating at colleagues' weddings, and dispensing rabbinic advice.
Meanwhile, he maintained a twice-weekly schedule at Mercaz Harav Yeshiva in Jerusalem and earned rabbinic ordination. So when the $15 billion Intel sale gave Mois financial independence, he took the opportunity to move full-time into Torah study and teaching. “People told me: ‘You’re crazy! You have a great position!’ But I’m an engineer by profession, and a rabbi by passion.”
He continues: "When I first signed with Mobileye, Ziv Aviram promised me this would change my life. In my departure, I thanked him for indeed ‘changing my life’ by creating this opportunity to pursue my dream."
Today, Mois enjoys his role as unofficial “Torah ambassador,” meeting with groups of foreign dignitaries, business leaders, Birthright groups and MBA programs. He speaks on the topic of “Innovation, Autonomous Vehicles, and Purpose” – mixing Jewish philosophy with technology, and “showing a spiritual side of Israel that people typically won’t get from meeting secular hi-tech Israelis.”
Mois also lectures on hot topics like how to ethically program an autonomous vehicle. “The ‘trolley problem’ has gone digital,” he says, referring to the ethical question of whether to avert the accidental death of many people by intentionally killing fewer people. “Autonomous vehicles cannot operate without ethical thinking. So who answers this question? The car manufacturer only cares about making money. And the car owner wants to save his own life. So it is the job of ethical thinkers to respond – and this is precisely where we can show the world just how much Judaism has to offer. The Talmud and rabbinic responsa have dealt with these issues for millennia.”
Mois is now working on a PhD in Jewish philosophy at Israel’s Bar Ilan University, focusing on the interface between tech and morality. He also teaches Torah classes at the Jerusalem College Technology, at Mobileye, and online at DivreiNavon.com.
While society today regards technology as the pinnacle of human achievement, Mois hopes to expose the deeper message of wisdom for living. "Technology has the power to inspire people to look inward, to seek their spiritual side and ask: What am I here for? Am I a machine, or is there something special about me? This is at the core of my story, and I think at the core of the Jewish nation. There is a difference between humans and machines. Life is inherently meaningful. We have a higher purpose."