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New film on 'Rosenwald' shares story of great--yet humble--Chicago Jewish businessman, philanthropist

Julius Rosenwald was one of America's greatest philanthropists and visionaries, and yet many people have never heard of him.

Rosenwald story image
Julius Rosenwald with students from a Rosenwald school.

Julius Rosenwald was one of America's greatest philanthropists and visionaries, and yet many people have never heard of him--for he was as modest as he was generous.

Our Chicago Jewish community gets to claim this magnanimous Jewish businessman as our own. But Jewish filmmaker Aviva Kempner hopes the rest of the country soon will know a whole lot more about the greatness of Rosenwald, when her new historical feature documentary, titled Rosenwald , opens Friday, Sept. 4, at Landmark Century Centre Cinema in Chicago and Landmark Renaissance Place Cinema in Highland Park.

JUF leaders, like President Steven B. Nasatir (interviewed in the film), have championed the documentary from early on, which celebrates Rosenwald who served two terms as president of the Federation of Jewish Charities, the forerunner of JUF. In fact, JUF's highest honor, named for Rosenwald, is bestowed at its annual meeting every fall. 

"The Chicago Jewish community was receptive to the Rosenwald film project way back when Aviva first approached us," Nasatir said. "Julius Rosenwald's generous contributions to society, particularly the black community during the pre-civil rights and civil rights eras, are a beautiful example of partnership between our two communities, one which the public knows little about. Rosenwald served as a model of philanthropy from the past for us all to follow into the future."

Kempner, the child of a Holocaust survivor, has made it her life's mission to explore non-stereotypical images of Jews in history and celebrate unsung Jewish heroes in documentary films like The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg and Mrs. Goldberg, in the realms of baseball and television. She now completes what she calls her "trilogy" of lesser-known Jewish heroes with Rosenwald, a hero from the business and philanthropy world, and beyond. 

She was inspired to make the film 12 years ago after hearing Civil Rights leader Julian Bond speak about Rosenwald at an event in Martha's Vineyard. Kempner felt moved by the story of Rosenwald, a man motivated not just by making money, but by the Jewish ideals of tzedakah (charity) and tikkun olam (repairing the world). 

"He was a man of such modesty," Kempner said. "He could have been content just being a millionaire. If he were alive, I would ask him why he did it. He practiced tikun olam in the purest way-through education, which was ironic because he himself didn't finish high school."

Kempner, who grew up in a progressive home in a racially integrated Detroit neighborhood during the Civil Rights era, wanted to shed light on a man who helped transform millions of lives in the black community. When she began work on the film over a decade ago, she says she couldn't have known how relevant the film would be today. 

"Who would think that in the summer of 2015, all these horrible issues of race relations and the need for communities to get together would emerge? But here we are," she said. Kempner hopes it will reignite a dialogue about common goals between the Jewish and black communities. 

Rosenwald's own origins were modest, chronicled in the film. Born in Springfield, Ill., in 1862 to humble German Jewish immigrant parents, Rosenwald left home at 17 before finishing high school to join his uncles' wholesale clothing business in New York City. The budding entrepreneur saved up and began his own men's summer clothing business, which he eventually moved to Chicago. In 1895, his business sense led him to a lucrative investment, in which he purchased 25 percent of a fledgling mail-order business called Sears, Roebuck and Company. By 1908, he had been promoted to president of the company. 

After climbing his way up in the ranks, he began donating large sums of money. He credited his mother as his primary inspiration, but also found a great mentor in the late Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch, the famous Reform rabbi and the leader of Chicago's Sinai Congregation, who believed that the wealthy were morally obligated to give to less fortunate members of society. 

Rosenwald would eventually create his own philosophy on giving. He believed it made more sense to "give while you live," to give away money during one's own lifetime rather than giving in perpetuity. "How could you know how to spend money 500 years into the future, what the needs of the society would be?" explained Dr. Peter Ascoli, Chicago-based grandson and biographer of Rosenwald. "You couldn't know that and therefore in order to get a bigger bang for your buck, it made sense to him for each generation to spend its money on the causes it believes in."

At first, Rosenwald donated mainly to Jewish philanthropies. But after reading Up From Slavery , the autobiography of an ex-slave who became revered black educator Booker T. Washington, and meeting the author, Rosenwald was moved to donate to black causes as well. To Rosenwald, the greatest societal ills were segregation and the lack of equality for black people. Washington's philosophy inspired Rosenwald to empower black people to lift themselves out of poverty. 

While he could offer the preliminary financial push, Rosenwald firmly believed in social responsibility and self-reliance on the part of the people he helped. He offered challenge grants, an idea that allowed recipients of donations to play a key role in raising money for themselves, creating a partnership to donors and recipients. From 1917 until his death in 1932, he financed the construction of 5,357 public schools for black students in the South. 

Rosenwald also donated to black YMCAs and built housing for African Americans to address the pressing needs during the Great Migration from the Jim Crow South to northern cities like Chicago. 

The film explores another beautiful Rosenwald legacy called the Julius Rosenwald Fund, which helped cultivate famous black intellectuals and artists in the American culture fabric--James Baldwin, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ralph Ellison, and Zora Neale Hurston. The fund--fueling a Chicago golden age of art similar to, but lesser known than the Harlem Renaissance--was created to encourage black leadership through arts, leadership, and scholarship and to support issues affecting black people during the first half of the 20th century. Between 1928 and 1948, the program gave stipends to hundreds of black artists, writers, and scholars-many with Chicago ties.

All told, during his lifetime, Rosenwald gave away $62 million--which would translate to more than a billion dollars today.

Kempner hopes that Rosenwald's story inspires all of us to be like Rosenwald, and make the world better a place, with whatever resources we have. " Tikun olam is our responsibility as Jews," she said. "We can all be little Julius Rosenwalds. Not all of us can give away $62 million, but we can give tzedakah away in our [own] ways."  

Some of the information in this article was gathered from the essay by Dr. Peter Ascoli titled "Julius Rosenwald: Unconventional Philanthropist," part of a collection of essays by leading scholars in their fields, co-published by Spertus Museum and Northwestern University Press. 


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