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YA Eco Mysteries, Memoirs, Novels & Travel

Rosenwald Film a Jewish Philanthropist

Rosenwald documentary Connects Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington

After viewing Aviva Kempner’s documentary “Rosenwald,” currently showing at the Edge 12, Crestwood Festival Center, in Birmingham, Al, I was moved to write a review.

Historical novel Blog
Historic Alabama Theater, Birmingham (Boris Datnow)

Kempner begins her documentary by asking, “Who is the white man prominently framed on the wall of numerous black schools located throughout the American South?” Most viewers will not recognize the man in the photograph, and therefore will be astounded by the magnificent legacy of former Sears & Roebuck CEO Julius Rosenwald, high school dropout, brilliant entrepreneur, and inspired philanthropist. 
Pulling the curtains of history aside,  the filmmaker reveals how the dynamic partnership between Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington resulted in the building of over 5,300 black schools in the segregated rural South. Rosenwald, the son of an immigrant peddler, often articulated the connection between Cossacks’ attacks on Jews in Eastern Europe with the white persecution of blacks, and considered himself a “member of a despised minority.”

Beginning in around 1917, Rosenwald provided a third of the funding, and then stipulated that the communities should contribute the rest, thus ensuring that the people had a vested interest in the schools that their children would attend. The photographs of the Rosenwald schools, with their high ceilings, spacious rooms, and large windows to let in sunlight, surely inspired the children themselves. 
Maya Angelou, recounts how a child receiving A’s “would be marched from one church to another,” for the congregations to applaud and take pride in them.

The documentary draws attention the artists and intellectuals whose careers were fueled in part by the Rosenwald Fund. Painter Jacob Lawrence’s “Great Migration” series, photographer Gordon Parks’s scathing transformation of Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” and Marian Anderson’s heartfelt rendition of “My Country, Tis of Thee” are just a few powerful examples. In addition, Rosenwald built YMCAs and housing for African Americans to address the pressing needs of the Great Migration.

“Rosenwald” clearly shows the far-reaching effects that result from the use of  wealth to encourage young people to develop their talents. The documentary will, hopefully, serve to highlight and give credit to this largely unsung hero.

Although the film would have could have benefited from on-site visits to the few remaining Rosenwald schools to break up the series of photos and talking heads, viewers will leave feeling inspired and awed by the far-reaching accomplishments of Julius Rosenwald.

Julius Rosenwald would have agreed with the sentiments of the Rabbi Ben Levi in my historical novel,
The Nine Inheritors: "The most respected men of our congregation have earned honor because they are shayne yiden, or beautiful people, which has nothing to do with looks and everything to do with being a mensch, a person of integrity."

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