Talk to Joel Rotenstreich or talk to people about him, and that Jewish concept comes up frequently.
“He embraces the core values of Judaism—a service to others and tikkun olam, which means repairing the world and doing good for the sake of doing good to make the world better,” says Deborah Layman, president of the board of the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center.
Rotenstreich has lived by those tenets for most of his 82 years, working to better the Jewish community and Birmingham as a whole and to ensure that work goes on in future generations. The BHEC honored Rotenstreich at its L’Chaim event in August.
“‘What can I do today to change the world?’ That is just the way he lives,” says Joyce T. Spielberger, who has worked with Rotenstreich since 2001, most recently as interim director of the BHEC. “The ripple effect of his projects will be felt for generations.”
Rotenstreich is a businessman by trade. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, he worked in his family’s business, Jefferson Home Furniture, and for 15 years was director of client services for Zarzaur & Schwartz law firm.
“The idea of bringing people together is a concept I believe in.”
But early on, he began balancing work life with volunteering. He and his wife, Bunny, and children, Mark and Beth, have been active in Birmingham’s Temple Emanu-El. Beginning in 1969, he organized and helped lead informational trips to Israel. One was personal—Mark had his bar mitzvah at Jerusalem’s Western Wall—but 22 others were all in the name of tikkun olam.
“Israel was my calling at that time,” Rotenstreich says. Initially, the trips were for young people in the Jewish community, but in the mid-1980s, they started taking on a different scope. In advance of the Festival of Arts’ salute to Israel, Rotenstreich escorted more than a hundred people of all faiths, races, ages and genders on a trip to Israel.
“The idea of bringing people together is a concept I believe in,” Rotenstreich says. “One-hundred-and-thirty-three people went to Israel as one group on that trip. We didn’t split up with Catholics going this way, Jews going this way and Protestants going this way. We did everything together, and it opened up a lot of eyes. After that, that was the idea Bunny and I had, to take interfaith and interracial groups to Israel.”
More than 600 people would eventually join the Rotenstreichs on trips to Israel.
“I always had a rabbi, a Catholic priest or a nun, Baptist or Methodist, black and white,” he says. “On Friday night, we
had Shabbat services and dinner, and everyone participated. On Sunday, we went to church together. That’s just the way it was.”
That desire to bring the world together has also translated into Rotenstreich’s extensive work in Birmingham, including chairing the Anne Frank Tree project. After reading a story that the Anne Frank Center in Amsterdam was going to award on a competitive basis 11 saplings from the horse-chestnut tree described in “The Diary of Anne Frank” to communities that had dealt with intolerance, Rotenstreich led Birmingham’s efforts to put one in Kelly Ingram Park. That didn’t happen, but Rotenstreich believed Birmingham still needed one, so he located his own horse-chestnut in Nebraska and bought it himself for $1,500. On April 11, 2010, the dedication ceremony took place in Kelly Ingram Park, near Sixteenth Street Baptist Church.
Over the years, Rotenstreich has been involved in countless organizations, including serving as campaign chair and president of the Birmingham Jewish Federation and serving three terms on the Mountain Brook Board of Education. Today, he’s on the boards of the Mike Slive Foundation for Prostate Cancer Research, the National Conference for Community and Justice, the Grafman Endowment Fund at Temple Emanu-El, Leadership Birmingham and the BHEC.
Fundraising is his niche, and his passions are education, bringing people together and social justice.
“I was raised on tikkun olam,” Rotenstreich says, returning to the concept of repairing the world. “That is what we—not just Jewish people but all of us—are put here for, to improve the world.”
That’s become even more important to Rotenstreich as he and Bunny have helped Beth, a single mother, raise her twins.
“Every day, Joel lives and breathes tikkun olam,” Spielberger says. “Since Noah and Asher came on the scene, he realizes even more how important it is to repair the world for them and for their grandsons.”
And Noah and Asher are listening.
After appearing in the tribute video to their grandfather at the L’Chaim event, the two worked the crowd, offering to autograph programs for 50 cents.
The 8-year-olds raised $40 for the Birmingham Holocaust Education Center.
“It’s the perfect closing of the circle,” Layman says.