Documentary filmmaker Aviva Kempner has forged a career out of making compelling movies about little-known Jews who had a big impact. Her most recent film, Rosenwald, depicts the efforts of Sears & Roebuck CEO Julius Rosenwald to advance the cause of educating African Americans in the Jim Crow south of the early 20th century.
Rosenwald was a gifted entrepreneur, a successful businessman, a devoted philanthropist and a high school dropout. When Rosenwald decided to give away hundreds of thousands of dollars to mark his fiftieth birthday, Booker T. Washington encouraged him to donate a portion of the money to build schools for African American children in the segregated south. Rosenwald worked in collaboration with the African American community, and he agreed to provide a third of the funding if the community would contribute the rest. This partnership eventually resulting in more than 5,300 schools that played a pivotal role in educating the generation of American Americans that preceded the civil rights movement. Luminaries such as Maya Angelou are among the schools’ alumni.
Rosenwald, now out on DVD, demonstrates the positive changes that can result when money and power are martialed to strengthen society. Moment spoke with Kempner about why she made this film and the lessons that can be learned from examining Rosenwald’s life.
What motivated you to make a film about Julius Rosenwald?
Fourteen years ago I went to hear Julian Bond give a talk on Martha’s Vineyard. I thought he was going to speak about the civil rights era, but it was about Julius Rosenwald. I hadn’t known that there was such strong black-Jewish alliance 100 years ago. By the end of the talk, I knew that I would make a movie about Rosenwald.
How did Julius Rosenwald become interested in working on education in the African American community?
He was a businessman in Chicago developing Sears into the Amazon of his day. Someone gave him a copy of Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington. He was fascinated by the book and how Washington had made something of himself by getting an education. Rosenwald invited Washington to Chicago; he was enthralled by Washington’s words about the importance of education. Washington asked Rosenwald to support Tuskegee University, the black college Washington had founded in Alabama. Rosenwald became an active supporter, and eventually Washington asked him to shift his attention to creating elementary schools. Ultimately Rosenwald helped build 5,000 elementary schools to serve the black community. It was kind of ironic, since he never finished high school. But I think he grew up with the principles of tikkun olam, and this work was his was of repairing the world.
Why did Rosenwald choose to focus his philanthropy primarily on the African-American community, rather than his own Jewish community?
He was living during the Jim Crow period, a time of racial segregation in the southern United States. He saw that that was where the greatest need was. He felt he could make a difference—and he certainly did. As the bonus features included in the DVD of the film show, he also did a lot in the Jewish community. He helped unify Eastern European and German Jews, and he was very involved in the Jewish Federations. The Federation still gives out an annual Julius Rosenwald award.
Considering that he had such a big impact, why was he so little-known before your film?
He was a modest man. He did not like his name written on things. He didn’t want the Museum of Science and Industry named after him. For him, it was about the act of giving and making a difference. It was about tikkun olam and tzedakah, not about getting kudos. And he used to say that some people thought you got rich because you were smart, but it was more because you were lucky.
Do Jewish audiences and African American audiences respond differently to the movie?
With Jewish audiences the reaction often is, “Oh this is amazing, I’ve never heard about this before.” With the African American audiences, it’s more, “Oh my gosh, I think my grandfather went there and so did my grandmother.” In both communities, many young people react by saying, “I want to do philanthropy. I now see that support can really make a difference.”
The film doesn’t have a narrator. Why is that?
I don’t like narrators. I want my films to have the voices of either those who know about the subject or directly experienced it. That’s a lot more work than using a narrator.
Why don’t you like narrators?
I don’t like being told the story; it’s just not my style. My style is to make a documentary that feels like a feature film. I want what you see and what you hear to move seamlessly. The viewer shouldn’t need to be told what’s going on.
Most of your films have been about little-known Jews. Would you ever make a film about a non-Jew?
Maybe someday. My MO definitely is to do films about little-known Jewish heroes or Jews who rise against the odds. I think the Jewish people need positive figures and role models. As a child of Holocaust survivors, I believe we need stories that uplift us. They are out there. We just have to find them.