Julius Rosen­wald: Repair­ing the World (Jew­ish Lives)

Hasia R. Diner

  • Review
By – November 27, 2017

In addi­tion to being one of the ear­ly twen­ti­eth century’s mul­ti­mil­lion­aires, Julius Rosen­wald was one of its great­est phil­an­thropists as well as one of its strongest pro­po­nents of Jew­ish com­mit­ment to tikkun olam, or repair­ing the world. Accord­ing to Hasia R. Din­er, Rosenwald’s Jew­ish her­itage imposed upon him the priv­i­lege of seek­ing to do or bring about jus­tice. The bedrock of his phil­an­thropy was his call for Jews to accept their civic duty and demon­strate their com­mit­ment to a bet­ter soci­ety.” In Julius Rosen­wald: Repair­ing the World, Din­er explores the ways Rosenwald’s Jew­ish her­itage shaped his phil­an­thropy and his social ideals.

The son of immi­grants, Julius Rosen­wald was born in 1862 and grew up in mod­est cir­cum­stances, nev­er know­ing depri­va­tion. His par­ents owned sev­er­al cloth­ing stores; Julius learned the basics of mer­chan­dis­ing in Spring­field, Illi­nois. After a stint in New York, he moved to Chica­go, where he launched a busi­ness man­u­fac­tur­ing men’s sum­mer suits and even­tu­al­ly joined forces with Richard Sears and Alvah Roe­buck. He made their busi­ness so suc­cess­ful that it became one of the nation’s largest com­pa­nies. Rosen­wald reigned supreme at Sears-Roe­buck from 1914 to 1924.

After the Great Depres­sion in the 1930s, Julius Rosen­wald turned his atten­tion toward phil­an­thropic projects, main­ly those found­ed by and for Chica­go Jews. He embraced work that aimed to erase divi­sions in soci­ety, with a strong empha­sis on cre­at­ing eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ties. Rosen­wald was a Reform Jew, believ­ing in a reli­gious sys­tem with eth­i­cal val­ues; he was also a Pro­gres­sive, believ­ing that eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty was the core prob­lem of soci­ety. Both ide­olo­gies pro­pelled him to phil­an­thropic heights.

Using his mil­lions, he sup­port­ed the West Side Hebrew Insti­tute, an insti­tu­tion where Jews and non-Jews could inte­grate, fos­ter­ing Jew­ish uni­ty. He also found­ed the Jew­ish His­tor­i­cal Soci­ety of Illi­nois, and con­tributed to the Hebrew Union Col­lege as well as the Union of Amer­i­can Hebrew Con­gre­ga­tions. Although he was opposed to Zion­ism because he felt that it empha­sized the sep­a­rate­ness of two pop­u­la­tions and put Jews above Arabs, he did sup­port the Tech­nion in Haifa. Hold­ing fast to the belief that reli­gion is the foun­da­tion of Jew­ish life, Rosen­wald gave to the Jew­ish The­o­log­i­cal Sem­i­nary and to many syn­a­gogues around the world.

As Din­er points out, Rosen­wald sought to bring Jews into pos­i­tive con­tact with non-Jews and improve Jews’ lives. He sought to direct Jew­ish cul­ture toward the gen­er­al good, nev­er mak­ing dona­tions to ben­e­fit only Jews. His Jew­ish­ness under­lay near­ly all his actions, whether obvi­ous­ly Jew­ish or not.” That is why he felt it was his oblig­a­tion to sup­port African Amer­i­cans. He invest­ed mil­lions in bring­ing black com­mu­ni­ties togeth­er — build­ing ele­men­tary schools, YMCAs and YMHAs, and homes for black teach­ers, and donat­ing funds to Tuskegee Uni­ver­si­ty and Howard Col­lege. Din­er is care­ful to high­light the fact that Rosenwald’s con­tri­bu­tions embod­ied the idea of sep­a­rate but equal;” they empha­sized the impor­tance of equal­i­ty of blacks and whites, but nev­er held any sug­ges­tion of integration.

The por­trait Din­er paints is one of a man whose gen­eros­i­ty and belief in Jew­ish ideals trans­formed phil­an­thropy and have made an impact on our lives today.

Discussion Questions