Julius Rosenwald is one of the most important Jewish Americans of the first half of the 20th century. Whether you already know why will go a long way to determining whether you like or love the new documentary about his life, “Rosenwald.”

The film is a 12-year labor of love from Jewish filmmaker Aviva Kempner, best known for her documentary about America’s first great Jewish baseball star, Hank Greenberg.

Rosenwald was the American-born son of a Jewish immigrant from Germany, Samuel Rosenwald, who, in the seven years before the Civil War started, combined success as a peddler with good business sense and a great choice in brides (the sister of the owner-operators of the store for which he peddled) to establish his own store in Springfield, Ill., across the street from a lawyer named Abraham Lincoln.

Filmmaker Aviva Kempner (photo by Bruce Guthrie)

Filmmaker Aviva Kempner (photo by Bruce Guthrie)

Lincoln had been in Washington as president for a year by the time Julius was born in 1862, but it’s reasonable to think that some of Lincoln’s beliefs about fairness for the nation’s formerly enslaved population had an influence on the young man who would have been his neighbor.

When Rosenwald grew up, he followed his father and uncles into the sale of clothes, which led him to a partnership in Chicago with an up-and-coming retailer named Richard Sears. In 1895, Sears forced out his original partner, Roebuck, and sold half the company to Rosenwald and Rosenwald’s brother-in-law, Aaron Nusbaum, for $75,000. In a little more than a decade, Nusbaum and Sears were both gone, and Rosenwald alone ran a company that pioneered catalog sales, industrial-level retail fulfillment and stock ownership.

The combined effect at the start of the 20th century was as disruptive and innovative as the Sears-sinking rise of Amazon and other online retailers at the end of the century. Rosenwald was the retail world’s Henry Ford — a comparison that no doubt would have upset the anti-Semitic Ford — yet because his name wasn’t on the company, his role in American business history is often forgotten.

But Rosenwald truly should be remembered for the philanthropic work he did with the fortune he made from Sears. By the time he died in 1932, he had given away $62 million, much of which benefited the black community through:

  • The construction of 27 black YMCAs across the nation in the segregation era, including one in Atlanta. For each one, he pledged $25,000 as long as the community came up with an additional $75,000.
  • The building of 5,357 schools for black communities in the South through a program inspired by Booker T. Washington and the Tuskegee Institute. Rosenwald put up a third of the cost of each school — some of which were burned and rebuilt multiple times — while the black community put up one-third as well as the sweat equity to make the schools a reality. The white communities, usually meaning the public education authorities, contributed the balance of the money to keep up the fiction of separate but equal facilities.
  • A major housing development, the Michigan Avenue Garden Apartments, for blacks who migrated to Chicago from the South. The complex is being renovated to reopen by the end of 2016 under the Rosenwald name, something the man universally known as J.R. in his lifetime would have hated.
  • Career-making financial grants for many of the great academics, writers, painters, photographers, dancers, singers and other artists of the mid-20th century. As Kempner’s documentary presents the stories of Richard Wright, Langston Hughes and others, the Rosenwald Fund essentially financed the Harlem Renaissance.

For those who have some knowledge of Rosenwald, particularly the Rosenwald schools that made success possible for the likes of Congressman John Lewis and writer Maya Angelou, the influence of the Rosenwald Fund and the accomplishments of its grant recipients were the most enlightening aspects of the documentary. It was fascinating to learn about this Jewish philanthropist’s crucial role in the careers of people such as Gordon Parks, Marian Anderson, Ralph Ellison and Charles Drew, as well as a long list of people I had never heard of but intend to educate myself about.

The film is most powerful and most successful in showing through interviews with Rosenwald’s beneficiaries, descendants and admirers how he fulfilled his work toward tikkun olam. You cannot see the documentary without becoming an admirer of Rosenwald and his dedication to Jewish social ideals.

What gets lost, however, is the man himself. Until about 1912, when Rosenwald celebrates his 50th birthday by giving away $687,500, we get a detailed biography, but the film spends far more time on the effects of his philanthropy than on his life after that point.

Much of that is understandable; after all, Kempner made the documentary to teach people about his influence and importance, not his family life. But when we spend time hearing Eleanor Roosevelt’s granddaughter talk about the first lady’s role in Marian Anderson’s Lincoln Memorial performance and in the success of the Tuskegee Airmen, we’ve strayed a long way from the subject of the film.

That’s a shame because while we’re certain of Rosenwald’s importance and his potential to serve as a continuing example in the area of black-Jewish relations, we’re left to wonder about the essential question: Why?

Why did he devote so much wealth and time to lifting up American blacks?

The film approaches partial answers: the Lincoln influence; the Jewish ideals of tzedakah and tikkun olam; the efforts of Booker T. Washington; the recognition of parallels between European pogroms against Jews and lynchings against blacks. But the result is unsatisfying.

Still, that’s a quibble, not a complaint. If what Rosenwald did is new to you, you’ll be amazed by what Kempner has achieved. Even if you know the basics of his story, the details will delight you. And if you happen to be a Rosenwald scholar, or at least read Peter Ascoli’s 2006 biography of his grandfather, you’ll at least get a kick out of the clips Kempner assembled, from interviews with Ossie Davis and Gordon Parks to snippets from “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman” and “Rawhide,” featuring Clint Eastwood’s Rowdy trying to pronounce Yiddish.

It’s a wonderful film and, as any good documentary should, it demands further study from all of its viewers.

“Rosenwald” is playing at the Landmark Midtown Art Cinema, 931 Monroe Drive, today through Thursday, Sept. 24. Kempner, who spoke at a special screening presented by the Atlanta Jewish Film Festival, AJC Atlanta and the Black-Jewish Coalition on Wednesday night, is scheduled to appear at the Friday and perhaps Saturday showings.