Julius Rosenwald (1862-1932) was not only an important American philanthropist, but he was also the most renowned donor to stress the importance of having a foundation with a limited life. His essay “Principles of Public Giving,” published in the May 1929 Atlantic Monthly, remains a vital exposition of the importance of giving while you are alive, as opposed to establishing a perpetual foundation.

Two years ago Aviva Kempner, a documentary producer who specializes in Jewish subjects, came out with Rosenwald, an interesting documentary on the life and ideas of Julius Rosenwald. (I reviewed the film here.) She has just come out with a DVD of the film. (The website for the film is here.) Her very extensive list of donors includes a great many small ones as well as the Ford, Hewlett, and Kaiser Family Foundations.

Some of the DVD extras were shown this month at the Edlavitch Jewish Community Center in Washington. I found that what I saw told me less about Julius Rosenwald’s ideas than they were about a man who inspired Rosenwald’s giving and some important, if neglected, activities of both the Rosenwald family and the Rosenwald Fund, a nonprofit Julius Rosenwald created which spent itself out in 1948.

One feature was devoted to Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch, who led the synagogue Rosenwald attended, Chicago Sinai, for many years. Rabbi Hirsch prided himself on being a football star at the University of Pennsylvania before becoming a rabbi. He was a crusader whose views were similar to the Social Gospel preached by many Protestant ministers of his time. For example, when he built his synagogue, he disdained what he thought were religious fripperies in architecture. Chicago Sinai, he declared, should look like a Carnegie library.

Chicago Sinai had a 2,500-seat auditorium, with special sections in the front to accommodate the press, who would routinely report on Rabbi Hirsch’s call for political and social reforms.

His most famous sermon concerned a meatpacker named Nelson Morris, who headed one of the companies whose abuses were detailed in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and who was a member of the Chicago Sinai congregation. Morris was accused of building pipes around the city’s water meters so that he wouldn’t have to pay for the water his stockyards used. Rabbi Hirsch, sometime around 1905, devoted an entire sermon to Morris’s alleged abuses, and then concluded by pointing a finger at him and saying, “Thou art the man.”

Morris promptly quit the congregation, a move widely reported in Chicago’s many newspapers.

Rabbi Hirsch wasn’t only interested in politics. Many young women in his congregation had nose jobs. “You can change your noses,” the rabbi declared, “but don’t neglect Moses.”

Rabbi Hirsch inspired Rosenwald to do his part to correct abuses. But Chicago Sinai wasn’t just a synagogue; it had 30-40 classrooms, and areas for social clubs, making it the ancestor of a Jewish community center. Its pool was so renowned that the synagogue’s nickname was “the shul with the pool.”

A second feature concerned an effort led by Julius Rosenwald’s sons, Lessing and William Rosenwald, which freed 300 relatives of the Rosenwald and Adler families from Nazi Germany in 1934. (The Adlers were Rosenwald in-laws.)

The effort extended to second cousins of the two families; second cousins once removed were excluded. Relatives were given travel documents, passage on a ship for the U.S. and a job in America. According to Aviva Kempner, the only other Jewish American family to launch a similar effort was one led by movie tycoon Carl Laemmle.

Two other features looked at recipients of Rosenwald Fund grants, which were similar to Guggenheim grants, but smaller and limited to African-Americans.

A one thousand-dollar grant in 1931 went to Charles R. Drew, enabling him to complete his medical school training at Canada’s McGill University. Dr. Drew not only was a renowned teacher at Howard University, but he created efforts to preserve and transport blood that led to modern bloodmobiles. Thousands of soldiers’ lives were saved in World War II because of Dr. Drew’s techniques of blood preservation.

At the talk, Dr. Drew’s daughter, Charlene Drew Jarvis, read a letter her father wrote when the Rosenwald Fund closed in 1948, saying that if he had not received his grant, he would have had to drop out of medical school, ensuring that his accomplishments both as teacher and researcher would not have happened.

A second thousand-dollar grant, also made in 1931, went to poet Langston Hughes. Hughes was from Missouri, and had never been to the South. He used his funds to travel to black colleges and universities to give lectures and readings. Since Hughes didn’t drive, he had a variety of helpers to take him places, including novelist Zora Neale Hurston. The trip made Hughes a greater poet, and strengthened cultural programs at many schools.

Julius Rosenwald was a great philanthropist who deserves to be better known. With several hours of new footage, the DVD of Rosenwald serves as a good introduction to the man’s life and ideas.