Julius Rosenwald

One man's philanthropic legacy.

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Wealth, Julius Rosenwald contended, is a blessing and a charge: "I can testify that it is nearly always easier to make $1,000,000 honestly than to dispose of it wisely."

Born in Springfield, Illinois to German Jewish immigrants in 1862, Rosenwald got his start in the wholesale clothing trade. In 1895 this middling garment salesmen left the family profession to invest in a newfangled mail-order company--Sears, Roebuck.
julius rosenwald
By 1906, Rosenwald had revolutionized Richard Sears' catalogue business with clear management goals and innovative organization techniques. It was time to expand. Rosenwald sought a loan from his old friend Henry Goldman. Goldman, later of Goldman Sachs, had a different suggestion--forget the loan and take the company public.

Issuing public stocks in Sears, Roebuck rapidly paid off and in a matter of hours, the market valued Rosenwald's personal worth at more than four million dollars. Rosenwald's financial windfall came at a time when most of his employees made less than $16 per week. This inequity was not lost on Rosenwald. As a longstanding member of Temple Sinai, a Reform congregation in Chicago, he looked to his rabbi, Emil Hirsch, for ethical guidance.

Advice from the Rabbi

Hirsch, a brilliant linguist and textual scholar, moved fluidly between Jewish and secular academic circles, articulating a vision of Jewish practice beholden to real world concerns. On Yom Kippur in the 1920s, he lectured his congregation with these words: "As long as the weakest in humanity has not his own, civilization is only a sham and a pretender, and as long as civilization is a pretender, Judaism must stand alone as a historic protest against injustice."

Rosenwald admired Hirsch and quickly absorbed his teachings on Tzedakah. Charity, Hirsch preached, "is not a voluntary concession on the part of the well-situated. It is a right to which the less fortunate are entitled in justice."

Learning about Jewish ethical guidelines, Rosenwald became aware of Maimonides' eight degrees of charity. The highest form of giving, Maimonides claimed, alleviates poverty by offering a method towards self-reliance; a loan or a job, in this model, usually take ethical precedence over alms because jobs and loans can ensure greater dignity and independence for their recipients.

Rosenwald sought to supplement this traditional Jewish approach with modern business practices and progressive ideals. He looked for organizations that were not only filling needs but were doing so in ways that empowered recipients. With donations of needed goods and challenge grants to settlement houses, Jewish organizations, schools, and hospitals, he formed lasting relationships with heralded progressive reformers such as Jane Addams, while establishing a giving model designed to prompt local communities, government officials, and other philanthropists to collectively invest in projects.

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Tamara Mann

Tamara Mann is a Ph.D. Candidate in American History at Columbia University and a freelance writer.