Finding Your Calling in an Epiphany: Aviva Kempner and Her Documentary, 'Rosenwald'

Even though we might wish for it, few of us find our callings in an epiphany: a thunderbolt of lightning revealing what we are meant to do. From that moment on, everything in our life is changed and charged.

Aviva Kempner had such an experience reading Image Before My Eyes: A History of Jewish life in Poland before the Second World War. The book by Sara Brozowsky tells an unfamiliar story of the three and a half million Jews who were living free in a culturally diverse community of city and shtetl, religious and secular, scholarly and creative classes, from poor peddlers to rich merchants. Since the tenth century, only Poland allowed freedom for Jews while other countries restricted Jewish education and contribution or expelling, then murdering Jews. But Poland collaborated with the invading Nazis and turned on their Jewish communities, enslaving and annihilating them in the Holocaust. Aviva Kempner had always wondered why Jews hadn't resisted and realized in reading Leon Uris's Mila 18 and other stories about the Warsaw Ghetto uprising that they had, but their stories were little known. Researching her own family inspired her to become a filmmaker.

She might have learned this from her mother, Helen Ciesla Cybensky, who had passed as a Polish Catholic in Germany during the war, but then her mother, who had kept silent about her devastating experience as did other survivors. Her mother, whose parents and sister had died in Auschwitz, wanted to protect her children. In 1945, she was liberated by Americans and married a US Army officer whose own mother had been shot by the Nazis. Three and a half years later, Aviva, the first American-Jewish baby born in Berlin, moved with her parents to Detroit. Her mother, an abstract expressionist painter, exposed her early to art; her father, a political activist, encouraged her. But only in 1960, when Aviva read Exodus, did she understand why Jews fled Europe to settle in Palestine.

Aviva studied psychology as an undergraduate and earned a masters in urban planning -- eventually linking the two subjects in her later films. She went to law school to specialize in immigration law and worked at a firm handling immigration cases, but she did not pass the Bar exam, based on multiple choice questions. Her mind, in opposition, was expansive and open.

Reading Images Before My Eyes sparked the epiphany that led her to her own purpose: discovering and filming documentaries of unknown American Jewish heroes. She made four documentaries, each winning awards, translating reality into film: Partisans of Vilna followed by a trilogy of three Jewish lives: The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg, the first Hall of Fame Jewish baseball player, her father's favorite; Gertrude Berg, the writer-director-producer-actor in television's first family sitcom, You-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg; and now, her homage to Julius Rosenwald, the unsung CEO of Sears and quiet revolutionary philanthropist who transformed the lives of Jews and Blacks.

Aviva first heard about Julius Rosenwald twelve years ago, in Martha's Vineyard, at a talk at the Hebrew Center for and about these two minorities. She listened to Julian Bond, the late eloquent social activist and senator, praise Julius Rosenwald's gifts -- building schools and housing for blacks in the early 1900s and giving grants to nurture emerging black artists and writers. Riveted, she began to investigate.

Julius Rosenwald had apprenticed in his father's store. Samuel Rosenwald had come with twenty dollars in his pocket from Germany in the 1880's, carrying dry goods on his back to sell to immigrants, Blacks and Indians. Julius, known as JR, never finished school and partnering with his cousin, started a factory in New York City to manufacture men's suits. Then he bought into the company started by Richard Sears, a charismatic salesman, and together with his own gift for management built up Sears & Roebuck to be the largest company in the US. By selling goods through mail-order catalogues, a pre-Amazon concept, he replaced the need for peddling or in-store purchases.

JR took the Jewish motto Tikum Ulum to heart: to repair the world. He started helping great numbers of impoverished Jewish immigrants in New York City and then unified opposing German and Eastern European immigrant Jews in Chicago. Influenced after traveling to Europe and seeing a science museum with touchable exhibits in Munich, JR built his Museum of Science in Chicago without branding his own name. JR's modest life style was visionary: spend a third of his income, save a third and give away a third as seed money.

He addressed racial inequality in America. When Booker T. Washington of Tuskegee Institute invited him to serve on the board, he offered to build schools, desperately needed before desegregation, challenging black communities to participate through their own small donations and to seek larger donations from white sponsors. Black architects on Tuskegee's faculty designed and taught construction skills to the Black community. When schools were repeatedly burned down by violent bigots, JR had them re-built again, and again. Rosenwald helped create over 5300 black schools across the southern part of the US.

He did more. To help cope with total discrimination in housing, JR created the Michigan Garden apartments in Chicago designed by his nephew. He wanted this living space to encourage real community: apartments surrounding a central park with stores serving the tenants who lived above them. When he recognized that educated black men traveling to northern cities were not permitted in hotels, Rosenwald funded YMCA's across the country to rent them rooms.

JR created The Rosenwald Foundation to give grants to emerging gifted Blacks such as Gordon Parks, Ralph Ellison, Marion Anderson and others who, in turn, created radiant art, poetry, music, and memoir, enacted legislation and sang anthems for us all. Testifying to his extraordinary contributions in this documentary are Julian Bond, Maya Angelou, Eugene Robinson, Eleanor Roosevelt's relatives and Rosenwald's own grandchildren.

Julius Rosenwald is one of our greatest, most unknown heroes. Aviva Kempner's hope is that this documentary will amend that. She has created The Ciesla Foundation for filmmaking, to keep alive her mother's family name.

Once we learn what Rosenwald has done, we are inspired by the great panorama of his life's work and the power of one person to repair the world. Aviva Kempner, an impassioned filmmaker, braiding art and activism through her lens of memory, is another hero.

To begin, you begin!