New Works in the Field

The Rosenwald Resurgence and its Limits

Editors’ Note: We are in the midst of a “Rosenwald Resurgence”–a wave of attention and accolade directed toward Julius Rosenwald, the Sears, Roebuck magnate and early 20th century philanthropist. He’s become a model for a new generation of actively engaged living donors. (For a critical analysis of his resurgence, see HistPhil co-editor Maribel Morey‘s post arguing why Rosenwald should not be considered a philanthropic “hero”). The latest offering in this rediscovery of Rosenwald is a biography by Hasia Diner, as part of Yale University Press’s Jewish Lives series. Lila Corwin Berman, the leading scholar of American Jewish philanthropic history, reviews Diner’s book for HistPhil. 

In 1975, Hasia Diner completed her dissertation entitled, “In the Almost Promised Land: Jewish Leaders and Blacks, 1915-1935,” at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The dissertation, published two years later as a book, included a chapter about the relationship between Jewish philanthropy and black life in the United States. It unearthed the beginnings of a vital and then under-examined history of philanthropic social, political, and economic activism. Julius Rosenwald headlined the chapter, which was situated in Diner’s effort to understand the “keen interest” that American Jews, themselves recent immigrants with a long history of facing discrimination, took “in the plight of American blacks.”[1] In her most recent book, Diner returns to Rosenwald, but this time with her eyes trained on the man himself and the historical forces that shaped him to become a champion of philanthropic activism.

As Diner explains, after Rosenwald’s death in 1932, his place in history faded quickly. After all, his giving had been designed to war against the aspirations of eternity and perpetuity. He did not name buildings or universities after himself, and he did not create a perpetual foundation. (The Rosenwald Fund was designed to spend down after twenty-five years.) Indeed, Rosenwald remains most remembered for his 1929 Saturday Evening Post polemic against the mortmain, the dead hand, of the donor exercising control over the future, as if some kind of apparition. Endowments and massive foundations, in his view, saddled the future with burdens far weightier than whatever financial gain they might offer. Instead, he advised, those individuals who amassed wealth during their lives should try to do good with it at the same time.

Perhaps the reason Rosenwald fought so strongly against the impulse to turn one’s wealth into immortality was because he was “woke” (as we might say) to the depths of social needs in his own moment. Diner offers this interpretation carefully. As she points out multiple times, Rosenwald was a white, powerful man, and his Jewish identity had not hindered him from accessing opportunity and resources in the United States. But his connection to Judaism and Jewish people provided him with certain perspectives about how the world worked. First, he understood the importance of kin and community networks in fostering his success. His connection to privilege put him in the position to gain what amounted to full ownership of Sears, Roebuck in 1914. His own ingenuity and merit alone were not enough. Second, he experienced Judaism through the prism of its early twentieth-century Reform exponents who focused on its universal ethical principles above and beyond its legalistic obligations or nationalist aspirations. In that context, he was tutored to connect being Jewish to working to uplift all people. Finally, he saw the United States as offering unprecedented opportunities to Jews and was invested in helping it stay on course. Rosenwald viewed American nativism as antithetical to the American ideal. He also staunchly opposed labor unionism and certain forms of radicalism on the same grounds; the system could be reformed to meet its potential, but reform was not revolution.

On all counts, Rosenwald’s Jewishness gave him faith in human progress. And yet he saw a world around him full of injustices and impediments to progress. For some, the dissonance between faith and reality would have caused crisis; for Rosenwald, it spurred him to action. His faith would not falter, so he found himself working to remake reality, especially for African Americans in the South. His starting point, however, was that same abiding belief in human perfectability and, as a corollary, the essential goodness of the United States. Diner writes powerfully about the countless good acts that Rosenwald did—including, most importantly, the schools he helped finance for African American children in the South—even as she carefully notes how his faith and power blinded him, sometimes, to the deep flaws in the United States and the structural impediments to progress.

Rosenwald practiced “impact philanthropy” almost a century before the term came into vogue because he cared far more about the measurable results of each dollar he invested than he did about turning his philanthropy into an institution. Similar to many impact-driven philanthropists today, Rosenwald also demanded that the individuals or groups he helped had skin in the game by investing their own equity. Thus, his philanthropic approach also anticipated some of the limitations of impact philanthropy, most importantly its focus on results often at the expense of a more expansive and far-reaching vision. For example, as Diner notes, for all of Rosenwald’s efforts to educate black children in the South, he never seriously questioned segregation as a social norm; rather he sought to have impact within the confines of Jim Crow. Impact philanthropy may not be particularly well-suited to making broad systemic change because its impact is measured within existing social frameworks.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, Rosenwald’s philanthropic achievements did not translate into a useable or revered past for future Jewish philanthropists. Diner explains that by the end of World War II, American Jews (and others) largely forgot Rosenwald, although his legacy endured through his children’s achievements. This may have reflected Rosenwald’s discomfort with elevating himself, but I suspect it also indicated American Jews’ discomfort with Rosenwald’s anti-Zionism and his relentless focus on uplifting African Americans. Post-World War II American Jewish philanthropy turned inward, funding massive suburban synagogues, large Jewish agencies, and, most notably, the transfer of significant resources to the newly established Jewish state.

Rosenwald was hardly a guide for the new post-World War II brand of Jewish philanthropy, and, after reading Diner’s book, I feel confident he would not have been entirely pleased by it. Yet, as the nature of Jewish philanthropy continues to shift, Rosenwald may be reclaimed for his capacious and universal sense of Jewish responsibility and his commitment to impact. One hopes that reclamation, however, is not purely celebratory, since as Diner so skillfully notes, Rosenwald’s approach replicated many of the fundamental injustices of power and resource allocation in the United States. Then again, this may be the central problem with philanthropy itself.

-Lila Corwin Berman

Lila Corwin Berman is Professor of History at Temple University, where she holds the Murray Friedman Chair of American Jewish History and directs the Feinstein Center for American Jewish History. She is author most recently of Metropolitan Jews: Politics, Race, and Religion in Postwar Detroit (Chicago, 2015) and “How Americans Give: The Financialization of American Jewish Philanthropy,” American Historical Review (Dec. 2017) and is writing a book on the topic.


[1] Hasia Diner, “In the Almost Promised Land: Jewish Leaders and Black, 1915-1935,” (Ph.D. diss, University of Illinois Chicago, 1975), abstract. Also, see Diner, In the Almost Promised Land: American Jews and Blacks, 1915-1935 (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977 and 1995 reprint).

One thought on “The Rosenwald Resurgence and its Limits

  1. The best-known essay of Julius Rosenwald about why he created a limited-life foundation–and the one donors ought to read–wasn’t in the SATURDAY EVENING POST. It was in the ATLANTIC MONTHLY.


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