Julius Rosenwald: Repairing the World.
Julius Rosenwald, possibly the most celebrated Jewish philanthropist of the Progressive Era, is virtually unknown today (although work such as Aviva Kempner's documentary Rosenwald may spur new awareness) .In this thorough and engaging biography, Hasia R. Diner explores both the man in his time and the reasons for his disappearance from historical memory. Rosenwald, who came up through the garment trade and eventually owned Sears, Roebuck, supported many causes from Chicago's Hull House to public health and social work programs, from Jewish cultural and community centers to schools for African Americans in the South. At the time, his expansive generosity, public commitment to his religion and seriousness of purpose brought renown not only to himself but to American Jewry as a whole. Yet his commitment to disbursing his money while he lived rather than establishing an endowment, and his refusal to put his name on most of his projects, meant that while his works endured, his name lived on only in the memories and records of his family and of those to whom he gave.
In Diner's words, Rosenwald directed his money to "countering prejudice, easing poverty and promoting civic unity" (54) and encouraged others to give both by example and often by providing explicit matching fund grants. Because he believed in Booker T. Washington's ideal of self-help, he also required those communities to whom he donated to give to the projects themselves, whether in money or labor. He saw his efforts as community building partnerships rather than largesse, and primarily pursued projects that helped integrate community members --Jews, the poor, African Americans--into the larger society. He had faith that everyone could benefit from exposure to middle class culture and opportunities. Thus he built schools to educate black children that southern whites did not, but required those schools to be bound by the same state requirements white public schools were. He established black public health centers and made southern states agree to support them once his grants expired. He supported Yiddish theater, the American Jewish Committee, and efforts to combat antisemitism but refused to support Zionism or any other project he saw as contradicting Jews' engagement with their Americanness.
Rosenwald acted out of both his Jewish and his Progressive Era values--optimism that life could improve and faith in rationality and reason. If the right people, experts, led the way, America could live up to its ideals of a fairer society for all. While certainly reflecting some of the same biases of his time from acceptance of segregation to antagonism to unions, Rosenwald nonetheless supported groups and organizations aiding the poor, immigrants, Jews, African Americans and others marginalized by society. While he never engaged in political efforts like anti-lynching or voting rights, he held a capitalist's faith in the system--if it could be made open to all--and a Reform Jew's commitment to a Judaism centered in ethics rather than ritual. To him, this charitable giving was what it meant to be a wealthy American and a good Jew. In that sense, giving to African American and other causes was an intrinsic part of his Jewishness.
Rosenwald gave generously, and publicly, to many many institutions and causes but he is (or should be) best known for his extraordinary contributions to the African American community. His money (with community contributions and other philanthropic donations he encouraged) built 5,000 southern schools for black children, supported black colleges, medical and law schools from Howard and Fisk to Meharry Medical School, and established year-long fellowships for promising young African Americans. A list of recipients reads like a Who's Who of African American cultural, political and scholarly life from W.E.B. Du Bois to Langston Hughes, Ralph Bunch to Marian Anderson. He also offered capital investments to black businesses, and provided scholarships for African American students to attend white universities and programs. He contributed to the Urban League and facilitated Chicago's commission to study the 1919 race riot.
Certainly all this was, in part, motivated by the belief that a fairer America was safer for Jews. More broadly, though, his was a call for opportunity and economic justice, albeit grounded in the unreflective faith in bourgeois values and the self-help ethos of his time. Those Progressive Era attitudes, however, contributed to his later invisibility along with his refusal to put his name to projects or endowments. The Civil Rights Movement's insistence on immediate equality and integration rather than a Washingtonian model of patience and accommodation discredited his efforts as complicit with racism and discrimination, or at best noblesse oblige or Jewish self-interest. Diner does not shy away from such criticism, some of it accurate and all of it understandable. But, as she notes, Rosenwald deserves our attention, especially at a moment where the values he stood for seem so under siege. Hasia Diner's biography, excellent in its own right and explicitly focused on Rosenwald's commitments as an expression of his Jewishness, is itself a work of tikkun olam, or repairing the world, and is indispensable for those who wish to advance that project.
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|Publication:||American Jewish History|
|Date:||Oct 1, 2019|
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