Looking for that perfect photo – the talented Rabbi Hirsch

Posted on November 14th, 2014 by

In our upcoming film about Julius Rosenwald, we plan to talk a little bit about the great Reform rabbi Emil Hirsch. Hirsch was the rabbi at Sinai Congregation in Chicago around the turn of the 20th century and had a great influence on Rosenwald’s personal philosophy of charity. An intense orator, Hirsch was well-known in the city for his fiercely held beliefs about social justice and for the way he would lecture his own congregants, some of the wealthiest men in Chicago, if he felt they had acted selfishly or unjustly in their business affairs.

Hirsch must have been physically imposing as well, and one of the most interesting facts in his early biography is that, before he was ordained as a rabbi, he played football at University of Pennsylvania. Picturing Rabbi Hirsch on the college gridiron (with no padding at that time, of course) is the sort of detail that can really bring a figure from history to life in a documentary film, so it’s been disappointing that we haven’t yet turned up a photo of the rabbi from that time in life.

Our first stop, of course, was University of Pennsylvania’s archives. Penn has an extensive online archive of its own history and, surprisingly, you can actually view yearbooks from when Hirsch attended in the early 1870s online. Here’s an example of the “University Record” from 1871, where you can see Hirsch’s name as the treasurer of the class of ’72 on the very first page. Unfortunately, yearbooks from this time did not include headshots of students.

Not only did Hirsch play football at Penn, according to this document from the Penn archives, he was actually part of the first football game played at the university in 1871. American football was just in its infancy at that time and was mainly played at East Coast universities. The 1871 game, which pitted the seniors (including Hirsch) against the underclassman, was also recounted on page 26 of the 1872 yearbook, but again, with no pictures.

Football stayed popular at Penn after this inaugural game, and team photos exist in Penn’s archives for the 1878, 1879 and 1880 team. Kudos to Penn for keeping such a wonderful archive of its early sports teams, but we can’t help feeling a bit disappointed – if Hirsch had played football at Penn only a few years later than he did, we might have a photo of him with the team to use in The Rosenwald Schools.