Based in Washington, D.C., the Ciesla Foundation is a 501(c)(3) public, tax-exempt educational organization. Ciesla (pronounced CHESH-lä) produces documentaries that investigate non-stereotypical images of Jews in history and celebrates the untold stories of Jewish heroes. Films include Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg, which details the accomplishments of Gertrude Berg and her media empire, the Peabody award-winning The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg and Partisans of Vilna, a film about Jewish resistance against the Nazis. The foundation recently released Rosenwald, a documentary on Sears head and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, who joined with Southern African American communities during the Jim Crow years to build 5,000 schools and supported major African American artists and intellectuals.
Ciesla was founded in 1979 by filmmaker Aviva Kempner, who serves as the executive director. Ciesla’s films have received numerous honors and awards including top honors from the National Society of Film Critics, the New York Film Critics Circle, the Broadcast Film Critics Association and the CINE Golden Eagle Award.
Through insightful and revealing storytelling, interviews with key figures and wide distribution, Ciesla’s films assure worthy individuals their rightful places in history.
Meet the Founder
Award-winning filmmaker Aviva Kempner has been making independent films since 1979.
A child of Holocaust survivor Helen Ciesla and Harold Kempner, a US Army officer, Kempner was born in Berlin, Germany after World War II. Her family history inspired her to produce her first documentary, Partisans of Vilna (1986), focusing on a gripping story of Jewish resistance to the Nazis. Kempner went on to write, direct and produce more films about under-known Jewish heroes. Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg (2009) is an exploration of television pioneer Gertrude Berg, who received the first Best Actress Emmy in history and paved the way for women in media and entertainment. The Peabody award-winning The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (2000) brings to light the life and career of the first Jewish baseball star in the Major Leagues. Facing anti-Semitism in the ’30s and ’40s, Greenberg welcomed Jackie Robinson in his debut in 1947.
In 2015, Kempner released Rosenwald, an inspiring historical documentary about businessman and philanthropist Julius Rosenwald, who partnered with Booker T. Washington and African American communities to build over 5,000 schools in the Jim Crow South. Rosenwald also provided grants to support a who’s who of African American artists and intellectuals. A special DVD package of Rosenwald is scheduled for release in 2017, and includes over four and a half hours of bonus features and an educational guide.
Kempner is currently working on a new documentary on Morris “Moe” Berg, a Jewish baseball player, who caught and fielded in the Major Leagues from the 1920s through 1939, during baseball’s Golden Age. But very few know that Berg also worked for the US Office of Strategic Services (OSS), spying in Europe and South America. He played a prominent role in US efforts to undermine the German atomic bomb program during WWII. Berg is now remembered most as the catcher who was a spy.
Kempner has also collaborated on films, consulting on a documentary about Shimon Peres, the former Israeli President and writing narration for Promises to Keep (1988), the Academy Award-nominated documentary on the homeless. Kempner made a short tragic comedy, Today I Vote for my Joey, about the 2000 election.
She regularly writes a column for THEWRAP and has written film criticism and articles for numerous publications, including The Boston Globe, Moment, The Forward, The Washington Post, and Washington Jewish Week.
A member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Kempner is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the DC Mayor’s Art Award, WIFV Women of Vision Award and a Media Arts Award from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. She is the founder of the Washington Jewish Film Festival in Washington, DC, where she resides.
In addition to making films, Kempner is an activist for DC voting rights and continues to lecture about cinema and write film criticism.