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New film, ‘Rosenwald,’ tells story of Jewish philanthropist who transformed black lives

Press-photo-1-captionJulius Rosenwald with students from a Rosenwald School (Courtesy of Fisk University, John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library)

PHILADELPHIA (JTA) — Alex Bethea, the son of cotton and tobacco farm workers, was in sixth grade in 1965 when his family moved from Dillon, South Carolina, to the tiny town of Fairmont, North Carolina, where he attended a school called Rosenwald.

But it wasn’t until this week, 50 years later, that Bethea learned that his school was named for Julius Rosenwald, the Jewish philanthropist who is the subject of a new documentary by Aviva Kempner. The film tells the little-known story of Rosenwald’s contribution to African-American culture and education.

The revelation came at a July 14 session at the national convention of the NAACP, which drew several thousand delegates to Philadelphia. Bethea was one of some 70 people who attended a screening of the film, “Rosenwald.”

“Julius Rosenwald had a great impact on my life, and I didn’t even know it,” said Bethea, now a vice principal at an elementary school in New Jersey. “This helps me put the pieces of the puzzle of my life together.”

The philanthropy Rosenwald invested in African-American causes in the early 1900s changed the course of education for thousands of children in the rural South and helped foster the careers of prominent artists, including writer Langston Hughes, opera singer Marion Anderson and painter Jacob Lawrence.

Rosenwald, who made his fortune at the helm of Sears, Roebuck and Co., also provided seed money to build YMCAs for blacks in cities around the country. In addition, he developed a huge apartment complex in Chicago to help improve the living conditions for the masses who had migrated from the Jim Crow South.

“It’s a wonderful story of cooperation between this philanthropist who did not have to care about black people, but who did, and who expended his considerable wealth in ensuring that they got their fair shake in America,” Julian Bond, the renowned civil rights leader, says in the documentary.

Kempner told JTA that her new film on Rosenwald “celebrates the affinity between African-Americans and Jews” that started long before the civil rights movement and speaks to the powerful Jewish tradition of tikkun olam, or repairing the world.

Kempner joined Bond and Rabbi David Saperstein, the former head of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center who now serves as U.S. ambassador at large for International Religious Freedom, for a discussion after the screening at the NAACP conference. It was while attending a public program 12 years ago on Martha’s Vineyard at which Bond and Saperstein discussed black-Jewish relations that Kempner first learned of Rosenwald’s work with African-Americans.

She calls this film the last of a trilogy documenting the lives of “under-known Jewish heroes.” The first two were about baseball legend Hank Greenberg and radio and TV personality Gertrude Berg.

Interspersing archival footage with interviews with prominent African-Americans like Maya Angelou and U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), both of whom attended Rosenwald schools, the documentary tracks the ascent of Rosenwald, the son of German immigrants who rose to become one of the most powerful businessmen and philanthropists in early 20th-century America.

His father, Sam, who came to America in 1851, began, like so many Jewish immigrants of his time, as a peddler. He eventually settled in Springfield, Illinois, where Julius grew up across the street from Abraham Lincoln’s home.

In 1878, his parents sent the 16-year-old Julius to New York to apprentice with his uncles in the men’s clothing manufacturing business. He returned to Illinois to start his own manufacturing company, and through some business and family connections ultimately partnered with Richard Sears, one of the founders of Sears, Roebuck and Co. After Rosenwald took over the company in 1908, it became the largest retailer in the country.


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