Opinion: Remembering black America’s Jewish ‘silent partner’

Blacks and Jews need to get along, my father used to say, or we bring joy to those who have neither group’s interests in mind.

That useful bit of wisdom came to mind as synagogues across the country invited guests to join them this weekend. Some would light 13 candles in memory of two tragedies: The 11 shot and killed at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh last weekend and the two African Americans shot and killed two days earlier at a Jeffersontown, Kentucky, supermarket.

Indeed, the two events were portraits of how hate can operate without much distinction between targeted groups.

“All Jews must die,” witnesses say the Pittsburgh gunman yelled as he entered the synagogue during Saturday morning services.

“Whites don’t kill whites,” the Kentucky gunman said, according to reports, as he fled past a white man after killing a black man who was shopping for school supplies with his grandson.

It turns out that, had the Kentucky gunman succeeded in breaking through the locked front door at a predominately black church nearby, where a small group was meeting inside, there might have been a replay of the massacre three years ago when nine black worshippers at Emanuel A.M.E. Church, in Charleston, South Carolina, were killed by an avowed white supremacist.

Yet, I found some guidance in another recent bad-news story: the announced bankruptcy of Chicago-based retailing giant Sears.

Rosenwald was the businessman and philanthropist, best known not only for leading the birth and growth of 125-year-old Sears, Roebuck and Company, but also for establishing the Rosenwald Fund, which, among other great contributions, donated millions in matching funds to support the education of African-American children in the rural South, where local schools for black children under Jim Crow segregation were underfunded or nonexistent.

In 1912, Rosenwald, a child of Jewish immigrants from Germany, collaborated with Booker T. Washington, the era’s most prominent black conservative leader and founder of the Tuskegee Institute, where Rosenwald was a trustee.

Robert Woodson, head of the Washington-based Woodson Institute, which works with grassroots community organizations nationwide, has proposed in The Hill, a Capitol Hill newspaper, that Rosenwald be remembered in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, at least with an exhibit for the world to see how well groups can work together to solve problems instead of creating them.

Instead of paying the total cost of pre-fabricated homes and school buildings from Sears, as Rosenwald originally wanted, he followed Washington’s plan to double and triple production by matching Rosenwald’s funding with local contributions from churches, organizations and individuals, including Tuskegee faculty and students in architecture and building trades.

The result was almost 5,000 new Rosenwald schools for children in 15 states in two decades of construction.

“The horrors that are due to race prejudice come home to the Jew more forcefully than to others of the white race,” Rosenwald once wrote, according to his grandson and biographer Peter Ascoli, “on account of the centuries of persecution which they have suffered and still suffer.”

Filmmaker Aviva Kempner, writer and producer of the 2015 documentary “Rosenwald: A Remarkable Story of a Jewish Partnership with African American Communities,” told me how Rosenwald was inspired by faith in two Jewish ideals: “tzedakah,” Hebrew for charity, and “tikkun olam,” repairing the world, two principles still worth keeping alive.

But Rosenwald’s life is also worth remembering and emulating as a model of an enduring American ideal: how people from different races, religions and cultures can work together for the common good, making America’s diversity our strength — whether some people refuse to recognize that or not.

Writes for Tribune Content Agency.

About the Author