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Conversation with filmmaker Aviva Kempner

“Rosenwald” tells the remarkable story of an unsung Jewish hero and his partnership with African American communities

By Cindy Mindell


Julius Rosenwald with students from a Rosenwald school. Photo courtesy of Fisk University, John Hope and Aurelia E. Franklin Library, Special Collection

Documentary filmmaker Aviva Kempner is the award-winning director of “The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg” and “Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg.” Her new film, “Rosenwald,” tells the forgotten story of Julius Rosenwald (1854-1932), the son of German-Jewish immigrants in Chicago who dropped out of high school and became the millionaire-philanthropist at the helm of Sears.

Rosenwald will be screened as part of the Beckerman Jewish Film Series presented by the Jewish Community Center of Greater New Haven, on Monday, May 9 at the Temple Beth David in Cheshire, followed by a talk-back with Rev. Eldren Morrison, founder of the Booker T. Washington Academy in New Haven.

Motivated by the Jewish ideals of tzedakah and tikkun olam, and a deep concern over racial inequality in America, Rosenwald gave away $62 million of his personal fortune to become one of America’s most effective philanthropists. The father of the matching-grant philanthropic model, he helped build housing and YMCAs in Chicago for the millions of African Americans migrating from the South in the first decades of the 20th century.

Inspired by the writings of educator Booker T. Washington, Rosenwald joined forces with African American communities in the segregated South to build more than 5,300 rural schools. The list of prominent alumni and educators who passed through these “Rosenwald Schools” includes Tony Award-winning playwright George Wolfe, poet Maya Angelou, U.S. Representative John Lewis, Pulitzer Prize winner Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post, and the ancestors of U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch and law professor Anita Hill.

Interviewed in the documentary, Angelou states, “The other school might have been better but this was our school, we had built it – so there.”

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. writes in Finding Oprah’s Roots, Finding Your Own that Oprah Winfrey’s ancestor, Amanda Bullocks, served as a trustee of the Buffalo Rosenwald School in Attala County, Miss.

In addition to providing schools to an underserved population, Rosenwald also awarded fellowships to a Who’s Who of African American intellectuals and artists of his day, among them: Marian Anderson, James Baldwin, Ralph Bunche, W.E.B. DuBois, Katherine Dunham, Ralph Ellison, John Hope Franklin, Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, Gordon Parks, Jacob Lawrence, and Augusta Savage.

Filmmaker Aviva Kempner spoke with the Ledger about her film.

Jewish Ledger (JL): How did you learn about Julius Rosenwald and his philanthropy?

Aviva Kempner (AK): In 2003, I went to a talk on Black-Jewish relations at Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center by Julian Bond [then-director of NAACP] and Rabbi David Saperstein [then director and chief legal counsel at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center]. I thought the talk was going to be about Civil Rights but I heard so much about Julius Rosenwald that a lightbulb went off and I decided I had to do the film.

I didn’t know that it would take 12 years – making films is always about fundraising – but I’m glad it came out last fall because it’s so much about racial inequality and its ongoing effects, and the important role that philanthropy can play. I do documentaries about under-known Jewish heroes and Julius Rosenwald is among the most under-known, and I think we should be very proud that he felt compelled to do so much at Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute, then in Chicago, and then [establishing] more than 5,000 schools in the rural South – making all the difference in the world in African American lives. His matching-grant formula is still a model for philanthropic giving today.

JL: Whom do you envision as the audience for this film?

AK: I wanted the film for my own community and for the African American community.

Each has a great history, and I wanted more and more people to be excited about the possibilities for making change today. I always say that you have to look at history to figure out what to do about the future. I think it’s a great story about tzedakah and about the Chicago Jewish community Rosenwald was a part of, led by Rabbi Emil Hirsch, who emphasized tikkun olam. Rosenwald had a theatrical run in 1,000 theaters all around America, and now it’s enjoying its non-theatrical run from the Deep South to up North.

JL: How did you fund the film?

AK: The funding came from all over the country – including a lot of people in Chicago – and a lot of private philanthropy, and the Spielberg Foundation and the Ciesla Foundation, my 501(c)3, named after my grandparents, who died in Auschwitz. My uncle, who survived Auschwitz, is the one who started me off 30 years ago, with my film, Partisans of Vilna. David Chase of West Hartford, and his kids, have always been very generous in supporting all my films.

The Ford Foundation and other foundations have stepped up to the plate for the study guide with two hours of extras. I’m still looking for funds for the very rich DVD extras, which include stories on Rabbi Emil Hirsch and Rosenwald’s Jewish involvement, the Jewish community in Chicago, and Black artisans.

JL: What does your film say about Black-Jewish relations in the U.S., past and present?

AK: My father always taught me that, after the Jews and the Armenians, the Blacks have suffered the most and so Jews and Blacks have to work together. I went to an all-city high school and I’ve lived in Washington, D.C. since 1973, so I’ve always lived in integrated neighborhoods. For me, it really is a commingling from the social to the political to the personal and, consciously or unconsciously, I wanted to show one of the best examples of that kind of interaction.

It took great courage, both on Rosenwald’s part – especially with what had happened to Leo Frank, which meant that a lot of Southern Jews were very scared of the plan – and on the part of Booker T. Washington and all the people who were building the schools. We have a great story of courage and a common goal. Just like, in the Jewish community, education is such a powerful aspiration, so it is in the African American community and it’s just great to see this affinity. There was great Jewish involvement in the establishment of the NAACP.

Rosenwald got his family members and other Chicago Jews to be on the Board. He put in a third of the money and got fellow Jews to contribute to the Chicago housing projects. For the schools, he put in a third of the money, the states gave a third, and the African American community raised a third in funds and sweat equity.

Julian Bond inspired me to make the film and was my consultant throughout and is very much in the film. The sad thing is that Julian died the weekend the film opened, but previously, he and David Saperstein and I had spoken together on a panel at the 2015 NAACP National Convention and again at the pre-opening of the film at the Center for Jewish History in New York City.

Today, in the synagogues that I know in Washington, D.C. and in the JCC, where I’m very involved, there’s a lot of community action like AVODAH: The Jewish Service Corps, Teach for America, Operation Understanding [Jewish and African American student leadership organization], and I hope the film will inspire more.

Not all of us are going to give away $62 million or have that means, although if you do, I still need help with the DVD extras. But there’s a Rosenwald in each of us and that’s really the beauty of what I hope this film is doing. I had a Jewish young man come up to me at a screening and say, “This is what I want to do with my life.” I had an older white woman say, “I’ve learned more about African American history than I ever learned during all my years in college.” I’ve had African American scholars say, “We have films about slavery, we have films about the Civil Rights era, but this is a film about a completely different period.” Another comment was, “It’s such a positive film about African Americans” and I will add that it’s such a positive film about our great Jewish American who really wasn’t known. We need these inspiring stories.



JCC of Greater New Haven

WOODBRIDGE — The JCC of Greater New Haven presents the Beckerman Jewish Film Series. The series, which will run through May 18, will feature a diverse collection of Jewish and Israeli films to be shown throughout the Greater New Haven area, including Cheshire, Hamden, Woodbridge, Madison, and New Haven. Partnering with the JCC is a host of community organizations: The Jewish Federation’s Shoreline and Women’s Philanthropy departments; Jewish Business League; Yale University (Judaic Studies, Whitney Humanities Center and Slifka Center); Anti-Defamation League, Tower One Tower East; Temple Beth David of Cheshire, Shoreline Hadassah, Best Video Film and Cultural Center (Hamden); and Madison Art Cinemas. The series is supported by a grant from CT Humanities.

“Presenting the Beckerman Jewish Film Series is a great opportunity for the JCC to reach audiences throughout our catchment area,” says JCC President Bob Felice. “The film line up offers something for everyone, and represents many different aspects of Jewish and Israeli culture. Even more exciting is the continued support from the Beckerman Family Foundation, as well as new support from CT Humanities and the involvement of 12 partnering organizations, who will expose new people to the JCC’s high-quality programs.”

Tickets may be purchased at the door. A door prize will be given away at each screening.

For more information visit jccnh.org.


Film Series Schedule:

GETT- THE TRIAL OF VIVIANE AMSALEMThursday, April 7, 6:30 p.m.

GETT: The Trial of Vivianne Amsalem
Yale University, Luce Hall,
34 Hillhouse Ave

Winner of the Israeli Film Academy’s 2014 “Best Film” award, “Gett” portrays the struggles of an Israeli woman whose estranged husband refuses to grant her a Jewish divorce. Yale University’s Dr. Dina Roginsky will lead a post-screening talkback.


DoughThursday, April 14
Reception, 6 p.m.; Film, 7 p.m.

JCC of Greater New Haven,
360 Amity Rd., Woodbridge
$5 JCC members; $10/non-members
See also May 15

A warm-hearted dramady about an old-school Jewish baker struggling to keep his dying business afloat in London, and his young Muslim apprentice who accidentally drops his stash of cannabis in the challah dough.

The JCC invites the audience to enjoy a pre-Passover “Dough Fest” before the screening, complete with challah, beer, and delicious treats. RSVP to marab@jccnh.org or (203) 387-2522 x300.


ONCE IN A LIFETIMESunday, April 17, 10 a.m.

Madison Art Cinemas, 61 Boston Post Rd, Madison

A determined high school teacher taps into stories of the Holocaust to motivate and challenge her troubled inner city students. Based on a true story.

Followed by a talkback with Marji Lipshez-Shapiro, associate director of the Anti-Defamation League Connecticut Regional Office.


Son-of-Saul-staloneThursday, May 5, 7 p.m.

Madison Art Cinemas, 761 Boston Post Rd., Madison

Winner of the 2016 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, “Son of Saul,” is the story of a Jewish man imprisoned at Auschwitz, working at a crematorium and charged with the task of burying the corpse of his son. The screening coincides with Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. Post-film discussion with Joanne Rudof of Yale University’s Fortunoff Video Archive for Holocaust Testimonies.


Monday, May 9, 7 p.m.

Temple Beth David, 3 Main St., Cheshire

Aviva Kempner’s documentary about Sears, Roebuck & Co. executive Julius Rosenwald. The son of immigrants, the Jewish philanthropist forged a partnership with Booker T. Washington to build 5,400 Southern schools in African American communities in the early 1900s. Followed by a discussion.


IN SEARCH OF ISRAELI CUIThursday, May 12, 7 p.m.
Reception, 6 p.m.; Film, 7 p.m.

Yale, Whitney Humanities Center, 53 Wall Street

Filmmaker Roger Sherman and Chef Michael Solomonov present the 70+ cultures that make up the Israeli cuisine, each with wonderful and unique food traditions. A reception hosted in partnership with the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life and the Jewish Business League, will feature food from the film.

Talkback with Roger Sherman. RSVP to marab@jccnh.org or (203) 387-2522 x300.


Sunday, May 15th at 10:30 AM.

Madison Art Cinemas
$10 (purchase at the theater box office)
(see April 14)


SarahsKeyMonday, May 16, 7 p.m.

Best Video Film and Cultural Center, 1842 Whitney Ave, Hamden
$5/JCC members; $7/non-members

Starring Kristen Scott Thomas, this 2010 film tells the story of a Jewish family arrested by French officials and placed in local camps in 1942, as told through the eyes of a journalist who finds herself in the family’s home more than 60 years later. Introduction and talk-back led by Best Video’s film expert, Hank Paper.


The rapper Shyne meets the press before the world premiere of his short films, "Roller Song" and "The Original" at a press conference in Jerusalem, Israel, January 11, 2011. Shyne, the Sean Combs protege, served almost nine years in New York prisons for opening fire in a nightclub in 1999. Today Shyne lives as Moses Levi, an Orthodox Jew in Jerusalem where he studies Talmud. He will soon release two new albums, "Messiah" and "Gangland" in a joint venture with Def Jam Records. UPI/Debbie HillWednesday, May 18, 7 p.m.

Tower One Tower East,18 Tower Lane, New Haven

Geoffrey Rush won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in this 1997 film based on the true story of Australian pianist David Helfgott. Plagued by memories of his family’s Holocaust experience, Helfgott’s abusive father leads him to leave Australia to study overseas. Followed by a discussion.


“I am a proud Palestinian”
New Milford native finds inspiration in northern Israel to ignite her artwork

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