Jewish Bedtime Story Co-op

Sears, Roebuck, Rosenwald and Nussbaum?

Once upon a time in America, there was a young man who worked on the railroads in the American Midwest -- Minnesota to be exact. His name was Richard Sears.

One day, Mr. Sears saw that several boxes of watches were being returned to their maker. He decided to buy all these watches and to try to sell them his railroad train passengers. He sold so many watches that in six months, he quit his job at the railroad and started his own watch company. Six months later he was joined by a partner named Roebuck, and together they sold even more watches.

Time flies when you're having fun, so much so, that in a few years they were able to sell the watch company, and then start a mail order catalog company. They combined their names, Richard Sears and Alvah Roebuck; and called the company "Sear, Roebuck."

Tick-tock, tick-tock, time flew, and soon they sold hundreds of other products in addition to watches. So many orders arrived in the mail, that they didn't know where to put all the letters. Some workers started to throw some of the mail away just to get it under control. Other orders would not get delivered to the customers for months. This was not a smart way to run a company, so Mr. Sears looked around for some new partners.

Mr. Sears used to buy his suits from Julius Rosenwald. Sears liked Julius, because he sold great suits. Julius liked Mr. Sears, because Sears head the ability to sell anything. So when Mr. Sears asked Julius Rosenwald to join him in the business, Julius said, "sure."

The next week, Julius Rosenwald and his brother-in-law, Aaron Nussbaum, invested $30,000 and became partners with Mr. Sears. Aaron was good at selling soda and ice cream, while Julius, was very good at manufacturing suits and organizing things. (He probably had a very neat bedroom growing up.) Very soon, all the mail orders were in neat piles and the customer orders were processed quickly. Julius also started a money-back guarantee for all the customer orders.

The years ticked by. Mr. Roebuck had already retired, Mr. Nussbaum retired after 8 years, and then even Mr. Sears retired a few years later. Julius Rosenwald was left to run the company. Julius had worked at Sears, Roebuck for just 13 years, and now he was the President of the company for the next 24 years. Not bad for a kid from Springfield, Illinois.

So what makes this story so special you may ask? Well Julius Rosenwald went to a synagogue that had a dynamic leader, Rabbi Emil Hirsch. Rabbi Hirsch taught his congregation the importance of not only giving charity to the poor, but the importance of giving poor people the opportunity to learn a job skill and "make a living." Julius learned that the great rabbi, Maimonides, taught that the highest form of charity was to help someone become "self-reliant."

Julius Rosenwald committed himself to this ideal.

To help to teach people about technology, Julius built the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, but ordered that his name not appear on the building. Julius then invented the "matching gift," meaning whatever amount of money a charity could raise, Julius would match it. In 1918, when the American Jewish Committee raised money for war-relief, Julius matched its funds by writing them a check for $1 million (and that's when $1 million was alot of money!).

After reading a book by the great African-American scientist, Booker T. Washington, Julius committed himself to help build schools and YMCA's in African-American communities throughout the American South, but only with matching gifts.

By 1932, Julius spent over $4 million building over 5,000 schools. But he provided his matching-gift money only when the local townspeople raised at least the other half of the needed funds. At the end of 1932, Julius had given away over $60 million.

So the next time you pass a Sears, Roebuck and Company store, remember that it could have been called Sears, Roebuck, and Rosenwald. But instead, Julius decided to be remembered not for building a modern retail company, but to be remembered for all of the Rosenwald schools that he helped to build throughout the South.

Visit Sears -- Revised: July 1999
Copyright © 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999 Acquired in August 1999.

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