In an era of division and vocal anti-Semitism, rabbi says there's reason for optimism

Rabbi David Rosen has spent decades reaching across political and religious divides in places like Ireland during "The Troubles", apartheid South Africa, and present-day Israel. He makes the case for optimism, even in the darkest times.

Rabbi David Rosen shares his perspective in the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting

Rabbi David Rosen, the Dalai Lama, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu attend the Summit on Religion, Conflict & Peacebuilding at Emory University. (Submitted by Rabbi David Rosen)

Rabbi David Rosen knows things aren't great right now. Between climate change and deep political divisions, there's no shortage of challenges facing the world, not to mention our everyday lives.

But he's here to tell you that it's not all bad. In fact, things are kind of good. It all depends on how you look at it.

The pessimist is the unrealistic one.- Rabbi David Rosen

Rosen has decades of experience reaching across the divide, to build connections between and among people of different faiths and cultures.

He's worked to mend relations in apartheid South Africa and as Chief Rabbi of Ireland during "The Troubles." Now, he's the International Director for Interreligious Affairs with the American Jewish Committee (AJC).

Rabbi David Rosen, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama at the Seeds of Compassion gathering in Seattle, 2008. (Submitted by Rabbi David Rosen)

In a conversation with Tapestry host Mary Hynes, Rosen said this work can lead to frustration. But he often keeps in mind an important caveat.

"The degree to which one is frustrated is inevitably related to the expectations and if your expectations are unrealistic, you're likely to be disappointed," said Rosen.

Why is the glass half full?

Rosen points to a common distinction between pessimists and optimists: people who see the glass half full, or people who see it half empty.

"The pessimist is the unrealistic one," said Rosen.

"He's coming from on top, expecting to see a full glass and therefore he's disappointed with what's missing."

So what's the deal with the optimist? What do they see that the pessimist doesn't?

"The optimist comes from underneath," said Rosen. "He knows the glass was originally empty and therefore he can celebrate everything in it."

Get some (historical) perspective

Rosen said perspective is key. If you're feeling down about the state of the world, he suggests reflecting on how far we've come on big issues like anti-Semitism, not how much farther we have to go.

There's more good in the world and more collaboration than ever before in human history.- Rabbi David Rosen

He noted that anti-Semitism is on the rise, as illustrated by the mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue in October 2018.

"Nevertheless," he said, "it's nothing like what it was in the [19]30s."

"This is a very different world. And the Jewish people, generally within the western world, is able to flourish and to live in a way that it was never able to do, certainly within a larger historical perspective."

Rabbi Rosen says sometimes the worst in humanity brings out the best in humanity, and he was heartened by the response he and the Jewish community received from other faith groups after the Pittsburgh shooting.

"I have been incredibly moved by the messages of solidarity, prayer, and support that I've received by people from all different religious communities around the world, but especially from the Muslim world. And from places from the heartland of, if you like, Muslim hardline, from Saudi Arabia… And then there's the amazing initiative in Pittsburgh itself of Muslims collecting over $200,000 in order to be able to attend to this. The quantity is not important, it's the effort that is so remarkable."

Rabbi David Rosen meets King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia, seated right, in Casablanca, Morocco, in 2012. King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz died in 2015. (Submitted by Rabbi David Rosen)

He added that an event like the Parliament of the World's Religions, where people from different faiths come together to celebrate their differences, would have been impossible many years ago.

"There's more good in the world and more collaboration than ever before in human history," said Rosen.

Daily encounters with the divine

Although many of us have a tendency to look for grand gestures as evidence that good things are happening in the world, Rosen said there's positivity all around us.

In fact, it's in you — and how you see others.

"We need to appreciate that the encounter with one another is an encounter with the divine," he said. "The spirit of the divine rests in each and every one."

"That can change the way we view the world and it can galvanize us."

Seeing the divine in other people is a large part of Rosen's work in interfaith dialogue. He said that it's often in the most difficult of situations - such as Ireland and South Africa where he worked - that you can find the most inspiring people and initiatives.

Rabbi David Rosen meeting Pope Francis. (Submitted by David Rosen)

Do something

If you're still finding yourself ruminating on the negative and worrying about what will happen to the planet or the latest political crisis, Rosen suggests getting out there and doing something.

"Very often worry comes about as a result of the fact that one is not being actively, positively engaged in something that gives meaning to one's life," said Rosen.

He noted that there are certainly people who struggle with psychological challenges that make them prone to anxiety or worry.

But in most cases, he thinks action can help.

"I would really encourage the person, if they are already doing something constructive, to do more and to find ways to contribute to society," added Rosen.

To hear more from Rabbi David Rosen, download our podcast or click 'Listen' at the top of this page.