This past Monday I had the amazing opportunity to attend an event marking Jewish American Heritage Month at the White House. The event included a screening of the movie Rosenwald, as well as a panel conversation which included the movie’s director, Aviva Kempner. The movie documents the life of Julius Rosenwald, child of German immigrant peddlers in the midwest, who eventually rose to prominence and affluence as the CEO of Sears-Roebuck, Inc. Rosenwald got involved in many Jewish causes, but the movie focuses on his passionate involvement in providing poor African-American communities with schools. The Rosenwald Schools, as they became known, had an enormous impact on the African-American community. Over 5,000 of them were built in the early 1900’s. Rosenwald’s philanthropy was classically Jewish – he focused on improving the world, and on education.
Even more striking to me than Rosenwald’s story, however, was the description Ms. Kempner gave of the reaction she received to the film’s screening at the recently held NAACP convention. She was shocked when after the film concluded, roughly 1/3rd of the conference attendees began publicly sharing about the impact Rosenwald schools had on their own lives. “My mother went to a Rosenwald school.” “My father.” “Langston Hughes.” “Maya Angelou.” “My father went to medical school because of Rosenwald.” And so on. Given the timing of the schools before the great migration of African-Americans north in 1920’s, their impact would be felt not just in the deep south, but anywhere folks landed after leaving that region.
Jewish tradition has plenty to say about the ripples of our actions, and my favorite of the famous aphorisms and wisdom is the idea that if someone saves a single life, it is as if they have saved the entire world. This idea helps us remember that all of our actions, far from having only immediate impact, ripple in both intended and unintended ways forward throughout time.
I was moved by the notion that this educationally-oriented philanthropy was one major way in which Rosenwald lived out his Jewish identity. His passion for giving to education should be a model for all of us – in fact it is only with excellent education that our nation will move forward with strength. This applies both for the US and for the Jewish community. It will be crucial to fund and support excellent schools if we want to see American Jewish life remain committed, strong, and vibrant. This mission was something that Rosenwald understood about the African-American community 100 years ago, and we can still learn from him today.