Film 'Rosenwald' recounts Jewish man's contributions to civil rights era

Film 'Rosenwald' recounts Jewish man's contributions to civil rights era

When it comes to audience endorsements, it’s more powerful and meaningful than a couple of thumbs up.

After watching Aviva Kempner’s documentary “Rosenwald,” a young Jewish man told the filmmaker, “Now I know what I need to do with my life.” A woman said, “I learned more in this film than I ever learned about African-American history.” A third person noted there are films about slavery and the civil rights era but few bridging the two.

“Rosenwald” does that in a graceful, inspirational manner as it tells the story of a man who never finished high school, became the president of Sears and gave away $62 million before his death in 1932. That is the equivalent of more than $1.1 billion today.

JFilm and Hotel Indigo are presenting the 96-minute movie “Rosenwald” at 7:30 p.m. Thursday  and 3 p.m. next Sunday at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater, 5941 Penn Ave., East Liberty. Tickets through jfilmpgh.org are $10 in advance or $12 at the door, with students paying half-price.

Julius Rosenwald was the son of Samuel Rosenwald, a German-Jewish immigrant who arrived in Baltimore with $20 in his pocket and became a peddler, first carrying his wares door to door and then hauling them by horse.

His son, Julius, born Aug. 12, 1862, in Springfield, Ill., grew up across from the Abraham Lincoln family home. Although Julius never finished high school, he eventually became the president of Sears, where he took customer service, innovations and efficiency to new heights.

Inspired by Booker T. Washington, Mr. Rosenwald helped to build more than 5,300 schools in the Jim Crow South. He also funded and supported YMCAs, YWCAs and housing for African-Americans and provided life-changing grants to artists and others, such as Dr. Charles Drew, who was a pioneer in blood banks and transfusions.

Mr. Rosenwald was inspired by the Jewish ideals of tzedakah (charity) and tikkun olam (repairing the world) and a concern over racial inequality in America.

Ms. Kempner was on Martha’s Vineyard 12 years ago when she went to a lecture about blacks and Jews with speakers Rabbi David Saperstein and Julian Bond, “my hero from the civil rights era.”

“I thought I was going to be hearing a talk about what had happened during the civil rights era,” she said in a recent phone call from Washington, D.C. While she had heard about Julius Rosenwald once before, “It was really Julian Bond’s eloquent words about the generosity and the realization of how something had to be done in the Jim Crow South and the extent of it — 5,000 is a pretty large number, for 600,000 students — that led me on the way.”

One of every three African-American children in the South in that period attended a Rosenwald school. Some of the schools were built, rebuilt and rebuilt again after the Ku Klux Klan torched them.

Ms. Kempner spent the next dozen years working on the film. Mr. Bond, whose lifetime of activism included a decade as chairman of the NAACP, served as a consultant on the project, suggesting interview subjects and storylines.

Early in the film, Mr. Bond calls “Rosenwald” 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.”

Mr. Bond died in August at age 75, and the filmmaker says, “It was really a blessing that he spoke with me at the NAACP convention with the film and also at the Center for Jewish History before the film opened.”

The documentary features interviews with five dozen people, including Mr. Rosenwald’s survivors, historians, educators, journalists, poets, museum curators and many others touched by his philanthropy or able to put it into perspective.

He believed in “give while you live,” and a milestone was marked with this newspaper headline: “Rosenwald gives $687,500 to public on 50th birthday.”

Understanding the importance of community involvement, he typically donated one-third of the money for a school, while the African-American community raised a third and the white community a third. Bake sales, fish fries and penny collections went toward the buildings — which boasted high ceilings, welcoming light and, in some cases, four classrooms — with the actual construction forged with sweat equity.

Ms. Kempner, who produced “Partisans of Vilna” and directed “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” along with “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg,” has a mission that not all filmmakers share. Her work investigates nonstereotypical images of Jews in history and celebrates untold stories of Jewish heroes.

She is the daughter of a Polish-born Jewish mother who passed as a Catholic working at a labor camp within Germany. Her mother’s brother survived the death camps, but her parents and sister died in Auschwitz.

Upon liberation, her mother met her Lithuanian-born father, an American soldier, in Berlin. The future filmmaker was born in Berlin, and her family came to America in 1950 and settled in Detroit (her dad spent some time at the University of Pittsburgh).

The DVD of “Rosenwald” is expected this summer, and Ms. Kempner continues to raise money for educational DVDs, extras and study guides. “What I’m hoping … is that there’s a Julius Rosenwald in all of us, and I’m hoping very much that people get very excited and motivated.”

She encouraged moviegoers to donate storybooks to schools when the film played for many weeks in Washington, D.C. It recently screened in Detroit, where teachers have staged sickouts to protest what a union official identified as rodents, dripping water, holes, black mold and other problems.

“Wherever I speak, I say look at what’s in your community, let’s figure out the kind of things we can do.”

If this movie doesn’t move you, nothing may.

By Barbara Vancheri

Originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette