Saratoga Jewish Community Arts, in partnership with Skidmore Office for Jewish Student Life and Temple Sinai, and with a generous grant from the Jewish Federation of Northeastern New York and support from the Golub Corporation, presents Rosenwald, directed by Aviva Kempner. Kempner begins by focusing her inquisitive lens on a mystifying anomaly. Who is the white man prominently framed on the wall of numerous black schools located throughout the American South? This question turns out to be the thread that unravels a historical yarn for the ages.
In the early years of the 20th century, Julius Rosenwald, son of German Jewish immigrants, a brilliant entrepreneur, a profit driven businessman and a fiercely devoted philanthropist, creator of the Amazon of its day, donated millions to the construction of more than 5,300 schools in African American communities in the rural South. Washington-based documentarian Aviva Kempner adds this film as another pearl to her growing string of films celebrating Jewish American achievement including The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (1998) and Yoo-Hoo Mrs. Goldberg (2009). Unlike her earlier films, this later work is less remarkable for Rosenwald’s personal accomplishments (rising to head of Sears, Roebuck and Co. amassing a great fortune) than for what he did with that money on behalf of others.
After being introduced to Booker T. Washington and “as a member of a despised minority,” Rosenwald recalled the pogroms his ancestors had suffered in Europe. The Northern businessman focused his attention and his tremendous wealth on the plight of the southern blacks. Through an alliance with B.T. Washington, Rosenwald funded and built community schools for black children throughout the South in the era of segregation. He gave grants that supported black artists, musicians, and writers who became a substantial portion of the black cultural and intellectual leaders in the twentieth century. Some of his schools were burned down by the Ku Klux Klan. He rebuilt them, sometimes over and over. The masterstroke in Rosenwald’s building program was his insistence that he would provide a third of the funding if the respective community would contribute the rest. These schools weren’t handed down from the Heavens; they were built from the ground up by the very same people whose children attended them.
Most viewers will likely have little to no familiarity with the events recounted in this documentary. Rosenwald isn’t just a portrait of a great selfless American and his powerful company, but an excavation of an ugly episode of our own history, and a reminder of what one person can do to uproot it. “What inspired Julius Rosenwald?” asks Jewish Community Arts Coordinator, Phyllis Wang. “It was not only the autobiography of and later relationship with Booker T Washington, and the biography of William H. Baldwin Jr., a white industrialist who became a leading advocate for African American education in the late 19 th century, but also the Jewish principles of tikkun olam (repairing the world) and tzedakah (righteousness often in the form of charitable giving).”
Rosenwald will be shown in Davis Auditorium at Skidmore College on March 24 at 7 p.m. and will be followed by a panel discussion and a dessert reception. A $5.00 donation is requested. For information or reservations, call 518-584-8730, option 2.