Pessimism: A Beloved Jewish Tradition

by Ron D. Wegsman, CFRE

Recently in the Conservative synagogue I attend in New York, a couple marked their son’s bar mitzvah by reciting the traditional formula Baruch shep’taranu m’onsho shel zeh (“Blessed be He who has relieved us of the responsibility for this one”). A regular congregant needed his Israeli wife to explain the phrase. (Thank goodness for family pews!)

This was the first time I had ever heard this phrase recited in a non-Orthodox synagogue. Even many Orthodox congregations have abandoned it. The couple – a rabbi and a Jewish educator – found the phrase meaningful as an expression of the transfer of religious responsibility from them to their son. (They did, however, make it egalitarian by saying it in the plural, rather than the male singular.)

For most of us, though, the tone of this phrase is too negative. It conjures the image of a harried parent breathing a sigh of relief: thank God I’m not on the hook for this kid anymore! (Although, as we all know, if you have a 12 or 13 year old, your troubles are just beginning.) Hardly the feeling we want to have at a bar mitzvah. So our congregations have substituted the Shehecheyanu, as an expression of happiness on a joyous occasion.

And yet the attitude behind baruch shep’tarani appears again and again in Jewish culture and liturgy – so often, in fact, that we can truly say that pessimism is a beloved Jewish tradition. In the traditional blessings that begin our morning prayers, for example, we praise God “who has not made me a Gentile … a slave … a woman.” In other words, thank God our situation is not worse.

Much has been made of the fact that the non-Orthodox movements have eliminated the implied misogyny of the blessing referring to women by changing it to “who has made me in His image.” But for me, what is most significant is that all three blessings were turned positive: “who has made me free … who has made me a Jew.”

Positive attitudes are much more in tune with the spirit of the 21st century. Negativity alienates people, especially young people. Yet pessimism remains the dominant strain in Jewish community discourse.

No matter what happens, it seems, the Jewish People are always on the verge of extinction. Either the goyim are trying to kill us, or they are loving us to death. Even as prominent a figure as Natan Sharansky recently warned of a “tangible threat of a dramatic numerical reduction in our people – by up to 50 percent.” It’s not clear where he got the 50 percent figure. Perhaps he was referring to statistics about intermarriage in the United States. But while intermarriage has been used as a measure of assimilation, it is not the same as assimilation. And the extent to which intermarriage actually correlates with assimilation has now become a matter of dispute.

For those of us in the fundraising business, pessimism is a bad strategy. People want to invest in winners, not losers. Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that a philanthropist like Lynn Schusterman declares herself an optimist. Schusterman and her peers are putting their money into Jewish life because they believe it has a marvelous future.

If we want others to contribute to our Jewish community organizations as well, we need to present a positive vision of present strength and future potential. As the pre-eminent fundraiser Laura Fredricks has written, donors want to give to a “forward-moving train” – that is, a group that “is on track and moving well on the road to success.” (The Ask: How to Ask Anyone for Any Amount for Any Purpose, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006, p. 36.)

More to the point, if we want young people to commit themselves to Jewish life, we need to convince them that doing so will bring them meaning and positivity, not trouble and negativity. That does not mean Jewish organizations should peddle shallow happy talk – young people have a strong BS detector; we need to offer meaningful engagement and values. But we need to do so with optimism, not crying gevald.

Yes, there are threats to the Jewish People. But we have never been as strong and as secure as we are now. The State of Israel is well established and economically successful. In the United States, we are fully accepted – even admired – not only as individuals, but as an indispensable part of American culture. In almost all other countries where Jews reside, we are among the most affluent of citizens.

Never have conditions been better for individuals to freely choose to live as Jews. But they will not choose to be Jewish to bolster our numbers. They will choose to be Jewish because it gives meaning to their lives.

In the Purim story, when Haman threatens to kill all the Jews, Mordecai does not tell Queen Esther that if she does not help, the Jews will be destroyed. Instead, he says, “If you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place” (Esther 4:14). Even in the darkest hour, Mordecai was an optimist.

Mordecai would have made a darn good fundraiser.

Ron D. Wegsman, CFRE, is a Certified Fund Raising Executive who has been working in Israeli and Jewish nonprofits since 1993. He is Grants Director of the World Union for Progressive Judaism and a Board member of Habonim Dror Camp Na’aleh. His previous article for, “In Praise of Duplication,” was posted on May 3.