Posts Tagged ‘ciesla foundation’

Bill Cosby supports Thurgood Marshall College Fund

Tuesday, November 26th, 2013

Old time TV fans are thrilled with the news that Dr. Huxtable, AKA Bill Cosby, is plotting a return to television. We can only speculate that an irritable and loveable grandfather character is in the works. And admirers can watch his new act starting on Comedy Central this past weekend.

Lucky for some of us in Washington, DC we saw him recently in person as the Master of Ceremonies at the Thurgood Marshall College Fund’s 25th Awards Gala. Dr. Bill Cosby at 76 was in perfect form as the hilarious MC for this worthy organization.

In August of this year, the head of the Fund, Johnny Taylor, participated with me on the education panel at “Reflections on Jewish and African American Civil Rights Alliances,” a conference co-sponsored by the Ciesla Foundation.

Johnny Taylor and Bill Cosby at the TMCF Gala

In a traditional vaudeville-like bit, Cosby set up the Fund’s staff person, budding actor Christopher Lopez, as his straight man. Lopez, thinking he was just handing the comedian notes on the script backstage, found himself right next to Cosby onstage and answering his comic questions. Just like in the old days of comedy, the two entertained the jam-packed audience with their exchanges.

Lopez described how the “entire night was unscripted.” He said “my role was to be the innocent, sweet handler/stage manager (this is why in the beginning of the night, I came out with my active headset on) and he said he will be Bill Cosby.” Cosby’s concept worked and a star was born.

The organization itself supports rising stars. The Thurgood Marshall College Fund offers African American students merit and need-based scholarships to attend public Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). TMCF has made a huge difference providing scholarships to needy students since 1987.

Remember the Rosenwald Fund also supported such HBCU institutions like Tuskegee, Fisk and Dillard.

Especially gratifying to see were the young students dressed to the nines and sprinkled at tables throughout the Washington Hilton Hall. Two gave moving testimonies of how important their scholarships were to them.

Civil rights icon Congressman John Lewis was also there signing autographs in his latest book, graphic novel March. An extra special treat was a free copy of his book as well as a big chocolate kiss as door prizes. Soviet expert Susan Eisenhower was also in attendance.

Also speaking was the tiara wearing, gorgeous new Miss America, Nina Davuluri, who plans to attend medical school after her reign. She admitted to entering the contest because there was a scholarship that comes along with the crown. The first Indian American to win the beauty contest, Davuluri is destined for a great future.

In a scene right out of another classic TV favorite, The Millionaire, Jim Clifton, CEO of Gallup and Chairman of TMCF’s board, announced during the dinner a grant of one million dollars to the organization. He explained that it was his wife Susan who impressed upon him the need to give generously to the scholarship fund. This kind of spontaneous giving makes for many future Cinderella college tales and reminds us of Julius Rosenwald’s giving.

The Fund’s President Johnny Taylor was beaming from the dais. He described why Cosby was the perfect master of ceremonies. “Dr. Cosby’s commitment to higher education generally, and HBCUs in particular, is unmatched. He and his straight man, Christopher Lopez (a former TMCF Leadership Institute Scholar), entertained the crowd and helped us raise $3.8 million to support publicly-supported HBCUs and their deserving Student Scholars.”

Washington attorney and film producer Thomas Hart, the Director of Strategic Planning for TMCF, has introduced a new initiative of a bilateral student exchange program with Israel. Hart explains how “the bilateral student and faculty exchange will allow a deeper understanding of cultural differences in an environment that fosters leadership skills in diplomacy and public policy. In the long run, this exchange will contribute to the improvement of the relationship between the United States and Israel.” Again reminiscent of the great African American and Jewish alliance during Rosenwald’s time.

Jennifer Holliday, famous for her role in Dreamgirls, sang to the crowd. An extra high note treat was a local Wilson High School junior, Paris McMillian, who also belted out notes. Like an audition in The Voice, she brought the house down for her rendition of the national anthem. Count that as another star is born.

Jennifer Holliday at the TMCF Gala

Beaming at the evening’s success was former board member Noel Hankin, who was a Miller Lite brand manager. He claimed, “We created the Thurgood Marshall College Fund as a way to make education the centerpiece of our community involvement. It is consistent with research confirming that people identify education as the best way for corporations to contribute to their community.”

Cosby was not all laughs as he turned serious at the end. He recalled a story of his son who was cruelly told by a fellow student that he got an A because of “affirmative action.” He challenged the attending students to study hard and make their education years worthy. I am sure they listened.

By Aviva Kempner

New interviews for The Rosenwald Schools

Monday, November 11th, 2013

October brought three great new interviews to The Rosenwald Schools. Read on to get a preview of three D.C.-area residents who will appear in our film: a rabbi, a poet and a curator.

Rabbi David Saperstein

David Saperstein is a lawyer and rabbi, active for decades in the Union for Reform Judaism and on the board of trustees for the NAACP. In his interview, he described the way Julius Rosenwald’s philanthropy adheres to the rich tradition of social justice in Reform Judaism:

Jewish leaders and Rabbis have always spoken out in universal terms, in terms of our obligation to be God’s partners in shaping a better world. So it’s not surprising that Rosenwald was able to deal both internally with Jewish causes of social justice – helping the Jews from Eastern Europe, as one example – but also get involved in universal concerns, working with Jane Addams in Hull House, the NAACP and eventually building this extraordinary set of schools.

Aviva Kempner and David Saperstein
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, October 28, 2013

The first system of universal education, at least for boys, was derived by the rabbis at the beginning of the Common Era, during the Talmudic Era of Rabbinic Judaism, 2,000 years ago. Every Jewish boy, rich and poor alike, not only was entitled to be educated, but it was the obligation of the society to ensure that it would happen. The Talmud says “be sure to educate the children of the poor, for out of them will come our great rabbis.” This was a belief that has been part of the Jewish community for 2,000 years.

Julius Rosenwald, 1917
Photo credit: Library of Congress, Harris & Ewing Collection

When the abysmal lack of education for African Americans was brought to Rosenwald’s attention, the recognition that there couldn’t be equality without education transformed his life. And he did one of the most extraordinary acts of social justice in the history of humankind, single-handedly building this network of schools that transformed the history of America, and certainly of African Americans. One of the most extraordinary undertakings in all of human history on social justice [was] building this remarkable network of schools. It transformed the destiny of the African American community, and therefore of America.

E. Ethelbert Miller

E. Ethelbert Miller is a poet and activist living in Washington D.C. He is inspired by Hughes’s poetry and by his commitment to bringing it to new audiences.

Aviva Kempner with E. Ethelbert Miller
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, October 28, 2013

Hughes got two Rosenwald fellowships, in 1931 and in 1941. When he applied to the Rosenwald Fund for a second time, Miller explained, it was at a low point in his career. Having run out of money, he had been forced to sell the rights to his previous books to his publisher, Knopf, for just $400. The Rosenwald money was very timely for Hughes, as Miller pointed out:

Langston saved everything, down to receipts and stuff like that, so we can see he never had a lot of money. I think the worst thing to be is a writer and you have to lose the rights to your work. To me, it’s the equivalent of being like a great jazz musician and you have to pawn your horn. That’s the real part where you have to say, “Okay, how committed am I to this?”

Langston Hughes, 1936 (between his two Rosenwald grants)
Photo credit: Library of Congress, Carl Van Vechten Collection

In 1941, his major work had not even been done yet, [such as] his Montage of a Dream Deferred. A lot of his Simple stories had not been written. But you can see he was at that point where many of us maybe would have given up or lost the rights to our work, our stories. But you see why, when an award does come, it comes at a particular time, like that old TV show The Millionaire, where somebody knocks on your door and gives you this money. And not only are they giving you money, they’re giving you hope and they’re giving you the ability to continue to pursue your dreams.

Philip Brookman

Philip Brookman is the chief curator at Washington D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery. An expert on photography, Brookman knew Gordon Parks personally. On a Rosenwald fellowship in 1942, Parks moved from Chicago to Washington D.C. to shoot photos for the Farm Security Administration, quickly producing what would become perhaps his most iconic photograph, American Gothic.

Washington, D.C. Government charwoman (also known as “American Gothic”)
Photo credit: Gordon Parks, Library of Congress, FSA/OWI Collection

The story of Parks’ Rosenwald fellowship will be prominent in the film, but Brookman gave us a wide variety of other interesting information on Parks’ life that will be included in the DVD of the film. Brookman discussed the way Parks approached his subjects, a method that began with his very first series of photographs of Ella Watson.

Gordon got to know a lot of the people that he photographed very well. I think that’s one of the things that distinguishes his photography. He really had to know and understand the people he photographed.

Aviva Kempner with Philip Brookman
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, October 28, 2013

One of the people he photographed is Richard Wright. He made a portrait a little bit later that I think focuses on Wright’s face and it puts him in a very modern looking environment. Not an environment that one would think when representing an author who had written so much about coming up from poverty in difficult conditions. Gordon wanted to represent the artist who was Richard Wright and I think he was very good at understanding how to actually convey a sense of who people were. His friendship with Wright had initially inspired him to become a photographer and to represent with images the way that Wright represented with words the kind of experiences they both had had growing up.

Richard Wright, 1943
Photo credit: Gordon Parks, Library of Congress, FSA/OWI Collection

I think that it was this kind of sensibility that came out of the Rosenwald era that gave artists a way of understanding what the power of their work could be and what it would mean for the world.

New Interviews for The Rosenwald Schools – Tuskegee Edition

Tuesday, September 24th, 2013

On August 22nd and 23rd, Aviva Kempner, director of The Rosenwald Schools traveled to Tuskegee, Alabama to film nine interviews with experts on a variety of topics related to Julius Rosenwald, the Rosenwald Fund, Booker T. Washington and, last but not least, Tuskegee University itself.

We recently finished processing the 5+ hours of footage Aviva and the Alabama crew shot. Below you’ll find some interesting excerpts from the interviews along with photos from the shoot.

The Interviewees

Aviva Kempner and Shirley Baxter, (National Park Service Ranger)
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, August 2013

The first two interviews of the day were shot in Booker T. Washington’s study in the historic home, known as “The Oaks,” that was built for him on Tuskegee’s campus. Shirley Baxter of the National Park Service introduced us to The Oaks. With its Victorian details and unusual features (a dry sauna, for example, which Washington requested after visiting Europe) the house was not typical of the Tuskegee area at the time it was built and, interestingly, it was the first building in the area with electricity. While some have criticized it for being opulent and out of place, designing and building it allowed students to study valuable architecture and construction techniques. It also served as a showpiece to the northern philanthropists Washington would entertain at Tuskegee (such as Julius Rosenwald, who stayed there several times). Both Baxter and Dana Chandler, Tuskegee University’s Archivist, described the parades, choir performances and dinners that greeted Rosenwald and his guests when they visited Tuskegee. According to Dana Chandler, while the dinners were designed to impress out of town guests, for someone like Rosenwald, who had spent his entire life in the North, they offered a real opportunity to experience another culture.

[The Oaks was] classy, but not over the top. The people that would come down with Julius Rosenwald would be treated to the local cuisine. They would eat turnip greens; they would eat grits: you know, the local foods. And from what I understand, many of them went back to their homes with a better appreciation of what we had here.

In addition to building the house, Tuskegee students staffed and even grew the food for these dinners. Washington, Baxter noted, was an avid gardener when he was not traveling, rising at 5:30 in the morning to feed his chickens and tend to his garden behind The Oaks.

Booker T. Washington feeding his chickens at The Oaks
Photo credit: Library of Congress, unknown date

Later that day, Aviva stopped by the Shiloh School to interview Edith Powell. The Shiloh School is a Rosenwald School nearby Tuskegee, and was the 2nd school built in a community that housed one of the original pilot schools of the Rosenwald School building program. Ms. Powell has been active in the school’s restoration for years, and Shiloh School stands among the finest examples of restored Rosenwald Schools in the country. Ms. Powell described the restoration process and also spoke about what the school meant for Notasulga, Alabama:

In the past, the school represented a way for children to get a quality education. Before this school was built in this area, [education for African Americans] was not of a level that could even compare to the whites. This school was state of the art and it represented the will of the community and the parents to have their children get a quality education at whatever cost. And they are the ones who raised the money.

The Shiloh Rosenwald School
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, August 2013

Along with The Oaks, there’s another National Park site in Tuskegee with a Rosenwald connection. In 1941, nine years after Rosenwald’s death, new Rosenwald Fund board member Eleanor Roosevelt visited Tuskegee in support of the nascent flight-training program and took a test flight with a black pilot (Charles Alfred Anderson) to prove to the rest of the country that black aviators were ready and able to serve in the military. Roosevelt’s visit to Tuskegee is a great story (that you can read more about in a previous blog post) and it resulted in the Rosenwald Fund giving a loan of $175,000 for the construction of an airfield and basic training facility called Moton Field that still stands today. Park Ranger Robert Stewart told us that around 1,000 pilots trained at Moton Field, almost half of which saw overseas action in World War II in places like Morocco, Tunisia and Sicily. We filmed Mr. Stewart in front of the very airplane (a J-3 Piper Cub) that Roosevelt and Anderson went up in back in 1941 (the plane is also visible below). Stewart talked about the heroics of the Tuskegee Airmen during the war, but he also stressed the way the program impacted the lives of pilots after the war:

When I think about what this site personally means to me, I think about all the men who came here that learned how to fly that went overseas to fight against fascism and then came back home and fought against racism. Many of the Tuskegee Airmen, when they went overseas and they had a chance to fly and defend their country, had their eyes opened. Because of the things they were taught here, they went off and helped to start what we know as the Civil Rights movement.

Aviva Kempner, Robert Stewart and another NPS Park Ranger at the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, August 2013

Anyone who visits or attends Tuskegee University cannot help but experience the work of one of its important, but less well known ‘founding fathers’. Aviva interviewed Dr. Richard Dozier, Dean Emeritus of the Robert R. Taylor School of Architecture and Construction Science, about the Tuskegee architecture school’s namesake. In 1892, Booker T. Washington recruited Robert Taylor, the first black graduate from MIT in architecture, to establish an architecture school that could design and produce all the necessary buildings for Tuskegee’s future campus. It’s amazing that Taylor was able to train his students not only to design and build each campus building from scratch, but also to use whatever local materials that were available or could be created (such as bricks). Of course, one of Taylor’s most important legacies is his impact on the design of many of the Rosenwald Schools. The schools were frequently built according to a design Taylor invented that maximized natural light and usable space in small (by modern standards) floorplans. Dr. Dozier made an interesting point about this in his interview:

We find that Taylor was responsible for making a good many of those decisions that we call “green architecture” long before we arrived here today. The ventilation, the orientation of the building on the site and also the utilization of the space. In hot humid weather [Taylor and his students] were able to design buildings that you could open the windows, you could raise the ceilings, let the air flow through. The rooms were flexible. They didn’t have that much electricity so they had to provide light. [Tuskegee] had a very practical architecture – this is all green architecture and this is all avant-garde of architecture.

Robert R. Taylor, 1906
Photo credit: Library of Congress (not online)

Other interviewees included Gilbert Rochon, president of Tuskegee University and his wife Patricia Saul Rochon. Dr. Rochon spoke of the amazing legacy Booker T. Washington left at Tuskegee and talked about what a daunting task it must have been for Washington to build the campus from the ground up:

It was no mean feat for Booker T. Washington, with only $2,000 and at the time no campus, no faculty, no students, to get this place established. Notwithstanding that, it had to come to pass within a city that was very much segregated. In order for Tuskegee to survive it had to provide everything; it had to be a world unto itself. They produced their own food, they raised their own animals, they had their own mortuary, they established a bank; they established everything that was needed in order to be a self-sufficient town. There was a railroad that came through and I’m told that it was the only railroad where there was a black conductor.

Dr. Gilbert Rochon, president of Tuskegee University
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, August 2013

Patricia Rochon told us about the less well-known contributions of Washington’s three wives to life at Tuskegee. Rochon especially stressed the role of Margaret Murray Washington in the early days of Tuskegee, explaining that she had the same clarity of vision as Booker Washington and that she would act in an administrative role on his behalf during the many times when he was away speaking or fundraising. We also interviewed Dr. Kenneth Hamilton of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, author of an upcoming book that reorients the legacy of Booker T. Washington in the history of racial progress in the United States. Dr. Hamilton defended Booker T. Washington from the common latter-day criticisms of accommodationism by emphasizing his passionate pursuit of economic justice.

Aviva Kempner and Dr. Kenneth Hamilton
Photo credit: The Ciesla Foundation, August 2013

Many thanks to these wonderful interviewees for giving their time and knowledge to our project.

Washington Post article about Civil Rights era symposium

Wednesday, September 4th, 2013

The Washington Post has written a nice article about “Reflections on the Jewish and African American Civil Rights Alliances,” a symposium co-produced by the Ciesla Foundation and On The Potomac Productions. From the article:

Jews were extremely active in the civil rights movement, and they played a role that was especially remarkable in light of their making up such a small part of the nation’s population. Prominent rabbis marched with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and several were involved in the founding of the NAACP.

Read more at The Washington Post.

“Reflections on Jewish and African American Civil Rights Alliances”

Thursday, August 29th, 2013

On Tuesday, August 27th, the Ciesla Foundation joined On the Potomac Productions to present “Reflections on Jewish and African American Civil Rights Alliances,” a symposium remembering the collaboration between Jews and African Americans during the Civil Rights era and considering new ways for the two communities to work together in the future. Ciesla provided 501(c)(3) sponsorship for the event, which was held at NYU’s Constance Milstein Center in Washington D.C. Ciesla Director Aviva Kempner also spoke at the symposium about the Rosenwald Schools and screened the work in progress of Ciesla’s upcoming documentary about Julius Rosenwald.

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Aviva Kempner and Gloria Davidson Hart
Photo credit: Tobiah Mues, Aug. 27, 2013

The Rosenwald Schools were one of the main topics on the “Education” panel. In addition to Aviva’s presentation, Gloria Davidson Hart recounted her experience going to a Rosenwald School and talked about the esteem the community had for the comparatively high quality Rosenwald Schools that were built throughout Southern states in the early part of the 20th century.

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Rabbi Israel “Si” Dresner
Photo credit: Tobiah Mues, Aug. 27, 2013

Other highlights of the conference included Rabbi Dresner, who shared some stories about the time he spent with Martin Luther King Jr. and talked about the affinity he felt between the Civil Rights struggle and the Biblical Exodus. Clarence Page described his early days at the Chicago Tribune, at a time when some of his co-workers were worried that an African American employee would be too “militant.” Ron Carver implored the audience to remember that Martin Luther King Jr. didn’t act alone and that young people today need not wait for a savior like King to begin collective action. Glenn Rabin chaired the communications panel and discussed the effects of the recent loss of governmental policies to promote minority ownership of media. The audience also heard a recorded message from Julian Bond, who is working on a film project about the relationship between the birth of rock and roll and the Civil Rights movement called “Crossing the Color Line.”

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Clarence Page
Photo credit: Tobiah Mues, Aug. 27, 2013

The final speaker of the day was Washington D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray. As a young man, Gray’s parents encouraged him to attend George Washington University despite the fact that he would be one of the only black students on campus. While these difficult circumstances caused a few of his friends to transfer away from GWU, Mayor Gray found a home at Tau Epsilon Phi, a Jewish fraternity that accepted him as its first black member.

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Mayor Vincent Gray and Mark Plotkin
Photo credit: Tobiah Mues, Aug. 27, 2013

Mayor Gray contrasted his experience as a minority at GWU with his time at the famous and predominately black Dunbar High School in Washington D.C. and named some of the remarkable alumni of the school, such as Charles Hamilton Houston and Dr. Charles Drew. Mayor Gray also mentioned Ernest Everett Just, who taught at Dunbar. Just, who had a special relationship with Julius Rosenwald and the Rosenwald Fund, will be the subject of an upcoming post on this blog.

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Mayor Vincent Gray with Aviva
Photo credit: Tobiah Mues, Aug. 27, 2013

Thomas Hart Jr. of On the Potomac Productions put together an amazing group of speakers for this weekday morning symposium, and the Ciesla Foundation is grateful for the opportunity to participate.

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From left to right: Clarence Page, Mark Plotkin, Rabbi Dresner, Thomas Hart Jr., Aviva Kempner, Leroy Nesbitt and Susannah Heschel
Photo credit: Tobiah Mues, Aug. 27, 2013

By Michael Rose

Symposium: “Reflections on the Jewish and African American Civil Rights Alliances”

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

Last week, we reported on an upcoming symposium to be held at NYU’s Washington D.C. campus about Jewish and African American cooperation during the Civil Rights era. The event will be held at The Constance Milstein Family Global Academic Center, 1307 L Street NW, Washington, D.C. on August 27th, 9:00am-1:00pm. On the Potomac Productions is organizing the event with assistance from the Ciesla Foundation.

There will be three panels featured (on Education, Law & Public Policy and Media) and we now have a list of confirmed participants:

Susannah Heschel – Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth, Daughter of Rabbi Heschel
Eleanor Holmes Norton – U.S. Congressional Representative, District of Columbia
Rabbi Dresner – Freedom Rider and friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Frank Smith – DC Chairman of the Host Committee for the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington
Matt Nosanchuk — Jewish Liaison, Office of Public Engagement, White House
Johnny Taylor – CEO and President of the Thurgood Marshall College Fund
Aviva Kempner – Director/Producer of the contemporary Rosenwald Schools film
Leroy Nesbitt – Executive Director, Black Student Fund
Clarence Page – Columnist, Chicago Tribune
Glenn Rabin, Esq. – Executive Director, Telecom Advocacy Project
James Kidd – Editor, Public Square
Ed Hailes – General Counsel, Managing Director, Advancement Project (Voting Rights)
Judge Stanley Sporkin – Retired Federal Judge, U.S. District Court, D.C.
Thomas Hart Jr. – President of On the Potomac Productions

Aviva Kempner, who will be discussing the pre-Civil Rights era partnership of Julius Rosenwald and Booker T. Washington, will also be showing some short clips of Ciesla’s upcoming documentary, The Rosenwald Schools. Ciesla and OPP invite you to join us for this event. You can RSVP to

Julius Rosenwald with Booker T. Washington
Tuskegee, February 22, 1915

Ciesla Foundation to co-host D.C. symposium on civil rights

Friday, August 16th, 2013

From On the Potomac Productions’ (OTP) press-release:

OTP will be hosting, along with the Ciesla Foundation, a symposium at New York University-DC’s campus (NYU) entitled “Reflections on Jewish and African American Civil Rights Alliances” on August 27th on commemoration of the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington. The “Reflections on Jewish and African American Civil Rights Alliances,” symposium will provide an opportunity to recognize Jewish and African American constituencies who supported the March on Washington and the Civil Rights movement. The forum will discuss the evolution of the alliances, present relations and future opportunities.

At the symposium, Aviva Kempner will discuss the Ciesla Foundation’s current project, The Rosenwald Schools, which concerns a partnership of African Americans and Jews before the Civil Rights era.

On the Potomac Productions also announced that their one-hour documentary about the effort to make Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday, entitled MLK: The Making of a Holiday, will air on television stations nationwide soon in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington. This is the first time MLK: The Making of a Holiday has aired in HD, and it’s a great opportunity to see the iconic moments of Dr. King’s life in more detail than ever before.  Some stations that will broadcast the doc include: WMAQ Chicago NBC, WTAE Philadelphia ABC, WDIV Detroit NBC, KSTP Saint Paul ABC and WEWS Cleveland ABC.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington D.C.
Photo credit: Sue Waters (flickr)

The Rosenwald Schools selected by Kroll Fund for post-production grant

Saturday, December 29th, 2012

The Rosenwald Schools received some crucial support recently, including a generous grant from the Jules Kroll Fund for Jewish Documentary Film. The grant will go towards post-production expenses on the upcoming Ciesla Foundation film. Indiewire’s Kerensa Cadenas reports that of the 5 Kroll grants given, 3 went to projects helmed by female filmmakers, including The Rosenwald Schools which is directed by Aviva Kempner. We are extremely appreciative that the Kroll Fund chose to support our project and it’s especially fitting that Kroll would give to a film that celebrates a philanthropist who made innovations in charitable giving almost a century ago.