Category Archive for: ‘Michael Ferguson’

Rosenwald — Film Review


Directed by Aviva Kempner


This is a film about someone doing something good in his life.  It is a straightforward, unaffected documentary.  It starts with Julius Rosenwald’s immigrant father, Samuel, who arrived in the United States with his wife from Germany in 1854, and marches right through Julius Rosenwald’s death in 1932.  It is a story that merits retelling and exposure to a wide audience.  I went with a friend who is Jewish and he had never heard of Rosenwald.  All of the events related in the film were news to him as well as to me.  It is an incredibly rich and touching story of human goodness, something you don’t see very often.

There are many points that could be made about this film and about Rosenwald’s life.  Rosenwald became the head of Sears corporation and brought Sears to the pinnacle of retail merchandising in America through most of the twentieth century.  Sears was the of its day, and Rosenwald’s managerial skill and vision were largely responsible for this preeminence.  Rosenwald became one of the wealthiest men in America.  But this is not the main focus of the film, that is, the amassing of his fortune and the growth of Sears.  The substance of this film is what Rosenwald did with his wealth and the social good that he was able to accomplish with it.

Rosenwald, through an alliance with Booker T. Washington, funded and built over 5000 community schools for black children throughout the South in the era of segregation.  Rosenwald gave grants that supported black artists, musicians, writers, who became a substantial portion of the black cultural and intellectual leaders in the twentieth century.  Some of Rosenwald’s schools were burned down by the Ku Klux Klan.  He rebuilt them, sometimes more than once.

The film draws upon a wide variety of historical sources, but what is most convincing in the film is the first person testimonies from so many people who benefited from the schools and the grants that Rosenwald’s foundation made: Maya Angelou, Julian Bond, Clarence Page, and many others.  It is an overwhelming outpouring of praise and gratitude that touches the heart.

The source of Rosenwald’s motivation was his Jewish heritage.  There is a doctrine within the Jewish tradition called Tikkun Olam, which loosely means “repairing the world,” or perfecting the world in accordance with God’s will through our behavior, attitudes, and actions.  There are different conceptions of this doctrine within Judaism, as there is with almost anything Jewish, but Rosenwald took it very seriously.  Many Jews feel a natural affinity for the plight of African Americans, because the Jews had at one time been slaves in Egypt, and they have been oppressed and discriminated against and excluded from the mainstream of society all around the world for centuries.  My friend told me that when he was growing up it was stressed in his synagogue to assist black people.  He himself participated in voter registration drives in poor neighborhoods in accordance with this principle.  Jews value education and cultural achievement, and therefore Rosenwald built schools and funded artists and intellectuals.  The social impact of this has been impressive, positive, and lasting.  It is a monument to the good that can be done within a society with the right thinking and motivation.

There is nothing like this in Christian tradition.  I grew up in a community dominated by evangelical Christianity and later in Catholic Chicago.  My observation and experience over many years is that Christians despise education and deeply mistrust it as a threat to blind faith in the simple minded conception of the world that they subscribe to.  Christians favor only one kind of education, namely, education that indoctrinates people in Christian ideas and norms of behavior, particularly sexual conservatism, or rather, asceticism.  They only book they really value is the Bible — which they don’t understand, and often misuse to support the silliest notions.

Some Christian groups will do outreach to poor communities in the form of food drives, and soup kitchens, giving away clothes and toys at Christmas and so forth.  These are palliative measures to alleviate suffering.  Some Christians do show compassion for human suffering, but in principle Christians do not believe in “repairing the world.”  They fundamentally despise the world; they see it as doomed and the tendency of Christians is to withdraw from the world and isolate themselves from it as much as possible.  The engagement of Christians in social action inevitably takes the form of hostile campaigns to suppress what they see as public manifestations of sin.  You never see a Christian group promoting anything constructive in society akin to the Rosenwald foundation.

It is refreshing and uplifting to see a film with an overwhelmingly positive message and an example for constructive living.  I hope this film will gain some traction and some popularity.  It sets a good example, something rarely seen in today’s world and something badly needed.

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