New interviews for The Rosenwald Schools: September 16, 2014

Posted on September 28th, 2014 by

First we filmed an interview with Steven Nasatir, the longtime president of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, an organization whose first president was Julius Rosenwald. Nasatir recounted how Rosenwald became president of the new organization in 1923, after he engineered the merger of the Associated Jewish Charities, primarily composed of German Jews, and the Orthodox Federated Charities, primarily composed of Eastern European Jews. Rosenwald took at as his mission to unite these two charitable organizations into one large federation, a combination that resulted in greater efficiency and potency for both.


Steven Nasatir and Aviva Kempner
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, September, 2014

Nasatir helped reveal the roots of J.R.’s philanthropy, which came out of his Jewish faith, and the roots of his famous motto:

J.R.’s motto of “Give while you live” was in some ways an English way of talking about tzedakah, which is righteous action. In the Jewish tradition, we don’t talk about “charity,” we talk about “righteous action.” J.R.’s whole life was being a righteous man and [working] on repairing the world, this notion of tikkun olam.

In the Jewish faith, tzedakah is a form of obligatory charity. Rosenwald felt that it was his responsibility to promote justice through philanthropy, not only to give to the less fortunate, but to give in such a way that they would be able to help themselves. Rosenwald’s challenge grants to African American communities in the South are the greatest example of tikkun olam, or repairing the world. By giving a portion of the funds needed to build a rural schoolhouse, he created a scenario where reluctant counties and their underserved African American residents both contributed to the improvement of educational opportunities.

Next we talked to David R. Mosena, the president of the Museum of Science and Industry. MSI is a great museum that received virtually all of its initial funding from Julius Rosenwald before it opened in 1933. Unfortunately, Rosenwald died in 1932, and never saw the completed museum. Since then, however, hundreds of thousands of visitors to the museum have been inspired by its exhibits. Rosenwald’s vision of the museum as a hands-on showcase for America’s industrial technology has survived to this day. Mosena explained the way the concept for the Museum of Science and Industry was developed by J.R. and his son, William.

[The museum] came about when Julius Rosenwald took his son to Munich around 1911. The two of them spent quite a bit of time at the Deutsches Museum, which is in Munich. It was then and is still one of the grandest industrial museums in the world, and his son fell in love with that museum. They had never seen a museum that was interactive before, where people got to push levers and turn knobs and do things.

So Julius Rosenwald came back to Chicago and decided that he would take on the task of trying to [create] a museum like the one he and his son discovered in Munich, a museum that was very hands-on, that showcased what he called America’s inventive genius and demonstrated America’s growing prowess in science and technology.


David R. Mosena, president and CEO of the Museum of Science and Industry
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, September, 2014

After shooting some retakes and a short interview with Peter Ascoli (the grandson and biographer of Julius Rosenwald and one of our primary interviewees) we also interviewed Bill Buckner, a man who attended an Arkansas Rosenwald School. As a child, Mr. Buckner voiced the question that was on the minds of many children who attended a school supported by Rosenwald and saw the portrait of him that often graced one of the walls in these schools.

Once while walking down the hall I saw three pictures above a door in the hall. And I asked the principal about who they were. And there was Booker T. Washington. W.E.B. Du Bois, and Julius Rosenwald. And I wanted to know, why was a white man’s picture in our school? And he said he was our benefactor and that he built the school and that when it burned down he rebuilt it.

Seeing Rosenwald’s picture prompted Mr. Buckner to learn more about the school’s benefactor. He was especially inspired by the way the Rosenwald Fund responded after the school burned to the ground – probably the result of arson, an all too common form of backlash against African American schoolhouses during the Jim Crow era. Undeterred, the Rosenwald Fund and community members rebuilt their school. It was actually this “second” Rosenwald School that Mr. Buckner attended as a child.


Bill Buckner with Peter Ascoli
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, September, 2014

Thanks as always to our great interviewees.