6,000 Rosen­wald Schools

New doc­u­men­tary shows Sears founder’s ed­u­ca­tion phi­lan­thropy.

Forward Magazine - - News - By Alexan­dra Levine Alexan­dra Levine is the For­ward’s sum­mer cul­ture fel­low.

o me, Julius Rosen­wald is the best an­ti­dote to Don­ald Trump,” says Aviva Kemp­ner, who wrote, pro­duced and di­rected the doc­u­men­tary “Rosen­wald,” which opened in New York on Au­gust 14. “You see how pompous rich peo­ple can be, but Rosen­wald is quite the con­trary; he is one of the great­est ex­am­ples for Amer­i­can Jews of tzedakah, tikkun olam, and re­pair­ing the world with­out fanfare — do­ing it just be­cause he wants to make a dif­fer­ence.”

“Rosen­wald” is a film about the long­stand­ing ca­ma­raderie, shared strug­gles, and joint ef­forts of Jews and African Amer­i­cans in the United States. And it comes out at a time when race re­la­tions and so­cial in­equities are very much at the fore­front of Amer­i­can di­a­logue. Last month’s pri­vate pre­miere of the film at the Cen­ter for Jewish History in Man­hat­tan took place on the same day that the South Carolina leg­is­la­ture took down the Con­fed­er­ate flag.

Kemp­ner has made a ca­reer out of telling the tales of Jewish he­roes such as Hank Green­berg and Molly Gold­berg; in this latest doc­u­men­tary, she fo­cuses on Julius Rosen­wald, the Jewish busi­ness­man and phi­lan­thropist who, in the early 20th cen­tury, helped to make ed­u­ca­tion ac­ces­si­ble to blacks in the Amer­i­can South.

“This topic is some­thing very spe­cial to a lot of Amer­i­can Jews — we pride our­selves in our ac­tive in­volve­ment in the civil rights move­ment,” said Kemp­ner. “And af­ter this film, we can see that our work­ing part­ner­ship with African Amer­i­cans to counter

Jim Crow be­gan long be­fore the civil rights move­ment.”

Kemp­ner, a daugh­ter of Holo­caust sur­vivors, grew up in tu­mul­tuous Detroit where years ago, dur­ing the war on poverty, her fa­ther was the head of a small busi­ness ad­min­is­tra­tion. “So I grew up hear­ing the story of, ‘We have to make a dif­fer­ence, we have to do things ei­ther through the gov­ern­ment or through our own phi­lan­thropy to help peo­ples’ con­di­tions,’” said Kemp­ner. “The same need is even more so to­day.”

The film brings Rosen­wald to life through an­i­ma­tion, old film footage, type­writ­ten letters and black- and­white photos, all ac­com­pa­nied by a sound­track of pi­ano, har­mon­ica, gospel and blues mu­sic. Rosen­wald, born in 1862 in Spring­field, Illi­nois (also the birthplace of the NAACP), grew up across the street from Abra­ham Lin­coln’s fam­ily home. He never made it to high school; in­stead, he went to work for his fam­ily’s cloth­ing man­u­fac­tur­ing busi­ness, which even­tu­ally be­came Sears, the Ama­zon of its day. Af­ter ask­ing his friend Henry Gold­man, of Gold­man Sachs, for a loan to build a new Sears plant in 1906, Rosen­wald saw his com­pany go public, mak­ing Sears one of the first IPOs in Amer­i­can history.

He grew up to marry suf­fragette Au­gusta “Gussie” Nuss­baum, and they both be­came true phi­lan­thropists, be­gin­ning as com­mu­nal lead­ers in Jewish char­i­ties in Chicago, and then be­com­ing in­volved in civil rights is­sues. Rosen­wald was inspired in large part by African Amer­i­can writer and ed­u­ca­tor Booker T. Washington’s “Up From Slav­ery.” Washington’s writ­ing and ac­tivism made clear to Rosen­wald that there was a se­ri­ous need for public schools in ru­ral black com­mu­ni­ties.

And so Rosen­wald built them. By 1932, he had cre­ated 5,357 schools.

“At one point, one out of ev­ery three African Amer­i­can school­child­ren in the South were at­tend­ing a Rosen­wald school,” Tanya Bow­ers, di­rec­tor for di­ver­sity at the Na­tional Trust for His­toric Preser­va­tion, says in the doc­u­men­tary. Many of these school­child­ren had never even seen a Jewish


‘We can all be lit­tle Julius Rosen­walds. You don’t have to be very, very wealthy to do the kinds of things he did.’

per­son be­fore.

Rosen­wald’s schools were at once sim­ple and iconic: The look, feel and ar­chi­tec­ture of the school­houses were stan­dard­ized. The high-ceilinged rooms were filled with light, and on the walls were photos of Abra­ham Lin­coln, Booker T. Washington and, even­tu­ally, of Rosen­wald him­self.

“A child who had got­ten A’s would be marched from one church to the other,” Maya An­gelou, who died in 2014, says in the film. “Peo­ple took such pride in the chil­dren.”

An­gelou, a prom­i­nent voice through­out the doc­u­men­tary, also draws par­al­lels be­tween the Jewish and African-Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence, de­scrib­ing how the Rus­sian pogroms in the shtetls of Eastern Europe cre­ated an en­vi­ron­ment of fear for Jews that was jar­ringly sim­i­lar to the way in which the Ku Klux Klan in­tim­i­dated black com­mu­ni­ties in the States. ( The Rosen­wald schools, for one, did not es­cape ar­son and other hate crimes.)

“The history be­tween blacks and Jews is just like Rosen­wald said: What hap­pened to us in Eastern Europe dur­ing the pogroms is hap­pen­ing to the blacks,” Kemp­ner told the For­ward. “I hope that peo­ple walk out of the film proud of that strong con­nec­tion, and I hope we keep feel­ing those con­nec­tions. I hope they get mo­ti­vated to do some­thing, whether in ed­u­ca­tion or else­where. My goal in mak­ing films is first to en­ter­tain, then to ed­u­cate, and then to mo­ti­vate peo­ple into ac­tion.” When Kemp­ner be­gan mak­ing “Rosen­wald” 12 years ago, there was no way to an­tic­i­pate that it would come out at a time when the is­sues of Black Lives Mat­ter would be so prom­i­nent. “Af­ter po­lice bru­tal­ity cases, af­ter the hor­ren­dous story in Charleston,” she says, “I’m proud that the story of this part­ner­ship be­tween blacks and Jews is part of the history of try­ing to counter the hor­ren­dous af­fects of Jim Crow.”

“We can all be lit­tle Julius Rosen­walds,” she added. “You don’t have to be very, very wealthy to do the kinds of things he did.”

“Rosen­wald” opens in New York at the Land­mark Sun­shine Cin­ema on Au­gust 14. For screen times and dates in other cities, check rosen­wald­film.org

‘Peo­ple took such pride in the chil­dren,’ Maya An­gelou says in the fi lm.


Civil Rights Pi­o­neer: Inspired by Booker T. Washington, Julius Rosen­wald (cen­ter) cre­ated more than 5,000 schools in the Amer­i­can South.

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