Rosenwald's charity a result of Hebrew teachings
In one of my earlier articles, I described the immigration of German Jews to the United States starting about 1805. Many of these men became peddlers who followed the westward march of Americans, supplying much-needed household items in frontier areas. Later, these men founded the great department stores of our country, stores such as Macy’s, Gimbel’s (Philadelphia), Lazarus (Columbus, Ohio), Neiman-Marcus, Goldwaters and many more.
After the Civil War, their offspring — along with subsequent German Jewish immigrants — founded great banking and merchandising firms. Names such as Guggenheim, Bache, Kuhn, Loeb, Warberg, Schiff, Straus, Goldman and Sachs did much to develop America as a world power. However, they did not forget that charity (“tsedakah” in Hebrew) is a requirement of Jewish law. They gave vast amounts to the poor, education, museums and artistic endeavors.
This article will focus on one of my favorite individuals, Julius Rosenwald. His parents emigrated to the United States in the 1850s, and Rosenwald was born in Springfield, Ill., in 1862. At the age of 17 he apprenticed himself to his uncles in the clothing business. He married Augusta Nusbaum in 1890 and became moderately successful in his own clothing business. Five years later, he and his brother-in-law, Aaron, invested in a relatively new venture — mail-order marketing. Yes, you guessed it: Sears, Roebuck and Co. It was Richard Sears who conceived the idea, but, as a result of his poor management, the business was in shambles. The quality of the goods offered was poor, and the advertising was misleading.
There was a definite need for this mail-order way of merchandising, especially for rural folks. They often had to travel long distances over poor roads to stores in town that may not have had what they needed. Rosenwald realized the company had to gain the confidence of its customers. He improved the quality of the merchandise and eliminated misleading advertising. Americans soon learned they could rely on the Sears catalog, and it became a standard item in millions of American homes.
As the business grew, Rosenwald introduced the principle of mass production — long before Henry Ford, who usually is given credit for this innovation. Rosenwald constantly was inventing new business practices, such as the money-back guarantee, the use of parcel post, a testing laboratory to ensure quality control and the public offering of stock. Needless to say, Sears Roebuck became the largest retail company in the country.
As his fortune grew, Rosenwald contributed huge amounts to charity, especially the poor, immigrant aid societies, agricultural research institutes and the University of Chicago and other colleges. He also founded the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry. Many Jewish organizations, such as theological seminaries and the America Joint Distribution Committee (which helped Jews suffering from the ravages of World War I), were recipients of his largesse. Rosenwald conceived the idea of matching money, in which his gift would be matched by two or three times the original amount. He was opposed to an endowment with a fixed agenda, stating that the trustees should have the freedom to respond to perceived needs.
Rosenwald also gave of himself in both time and influence to further the country’s needs. He served on the Chicago Planning Commission, laying out the design of modern Chicago, and he was appointed by President Woodrow Wilson to the Advisory Commission of the Council of National Defense. In this capacity he saw to it that the nation’s armies were properly outfitted during World War I.
However, his most remarkable activity was his support for the education of young black people in the South. He financed the construction of more than 2,000 rural schools, college libraries and YMCA buildings for African-Americans, with about 200 of them in Texas. Rosenwald also gave large sums to historically black colleges, such as the Tuskegee Institute.
What would motivate the sons of immigrant families such as Rosenwald and others to so embrace their chosen country as to give of themselves and their fortunes to the benefit of all? I believe, consciously or subconsciously, it is the teachings of the Hebrew prophets to do justice, to do righteous deeds and to care for the less fortunate.
I am indebted to a book by Michael Shapiro, “The Jewish 100” (Citadel Press, 1994), as a source for this article.
• Abraham Clearfield is a member of Congregation Beth Shalom in Bryan and has taught Jewish History courses.