Julius Rosenwald: The quiet philanthropic humanitarian

Event Recap of Julius Rosenwald: Repairing the World, 11/13/18

By Sariah Bunker

Hasia Diner speaks at "Julius Rosenwald: Repairing the World," 11/13/18
Robert Cohen speaks at "Julius Rosenwald: Repairing the World," 11/13/18

Hasia Diner, author of Julius Rosenwald: Repairing the World (Yale University Press, 2018) examined Rosenwald’s “philosophy of giving” and his imperative for improving Jewish life in America at our event on November 11, 2018.  Rosenwald grew up in Springfield, Illinois, the son of Jewish immigrants from Germany. He often said how grateful he was for his hardworking parents and the opportunities they found in the United States. Rosenwald was imbued with the Reform movement’s social justice and ethics, so when he “woke up a millionaire” after years of worrying about finances, he chose to strive to improve human life in the United States.

Diner (Paul & Sylvia Steinberg Professor of American Jewish History and Director of the Goldstein-Goren Center for American Jewish History, NYU) contemplated the ways in which Rosenwald lead a “Jewish life”, as the book is part of Yale University Press’ Jewish Lives Series.  She asserted that primarily Rosenwald lived in a Jewish community, demonstrated by his extensive network of Jewish friends, colleagues, and family. He supported Jewish institutions, such as the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee which assisted Jews in combat zones. He gave to many different segments and denominations of the expansive Jewish community: Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox institutions alike. He worked to dissolve distinctions between Jewish communities, and between those communities and the American public. Rosenwald did not support the Zionist movement, refusing to donate to their cause despite multiple requests.

Diner asserted that Rosenwald did not experience much personal anti-semitism in his life. His father was quoted in a letter to a German relative saying that life for their family was good in Springfield, aside from a few instances of harmful words. Rosenwald worked throughout his life to end antisemitism in the United States, fighting against quotas for Jews in medical school and directing the Rosenwald Fund to investigate anti-semitism. However, Rosenwald did not fight only for the rights of his own people, rather he worked tirelessly to benefit other communities, such as the African American community.

Hasia Diner and Robert Cohen speak at "Julius Rosenwald: Repairing the World," 11/13/18

Robert Cohen (Professor of Social Studies Education and History, NYU) considered how the biography invokes the person behind the philanthropic gifts, like the many Rosenwald schools built throughout the southern States. Rosenwald insisted that the African American communities that received a school contribute partially to it’s financing and construction, and that the State recognize the school as part of its districts. He collaborated with Booker T. Washington and W.E.B Du Bois, and he built YMCAs and YWCAs for African American people. He gave to Black colleges, trade schools, and created scholarships for Black people. Rosenwald also worked to build Howard University a library so they didn’t lose their accreditation. This institution was vital for the Civil Rights Movement’s legal advocacy. Furthermore, he funded the work of intellectuals, educators, artists, activists, musicians, and scholars through a grant program. One such recipient was Marian Anderson, one of the most celebrated singers in the twentieth century.

Rosenwald was averse to having his name engraved on the landscapes he worked to change with his philanthropy. He preferred to be a silent or unknown humanitarian, refusing to put his name on donations or projects. Rosenwald died in 1932 only a few weeks before Hitler rose to power. The Rosenwald Fund closed its doors 25 years after his death. Rosenwald was notoriously close-lipped about himself, and he didn’t allow his children to commission a biography before his death. Not only does this new biography expose the quiet philanthropic humanitarianism Rosenwald practiced, but keeps his memory alive among his family and those who still work in the schools and institutions he built or funded. Furthermore, his legacy is displayed in the actions of those activists, artists, students, intellectuals, scholars and educators who have benefited from his philanthropy and continue to improve the world, like those who came before them.