About the Foundation
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
Kempner recently made Rosenwald, (2015) a feature-length 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. The Rosenwald Fund also provided grants to support a who’s who of African American artists and intellectuals. This historical partnership as well as the modern-day attempts to restore the schools is an inspiring story of philanthropy and local self-determination. A DVD of this film with over four and a half bonus features was released in 2017.
She is currently working on a new documentary on 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. He played a prominent role in US efforts to undermine the German atomic bomb program during WWII.
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 conceive and produce her first documentary, Partisans of Vilna (1986), a gripping documentary on Jewish resistance against the Nazis. It was the winner of a CINE Golden Eagle and the Anthropos First Prize, and received an American Film Festival honorable mention.
Kempner went on to write, direct and produce more films about under-known American Jewish heroes. The Life and Times of Hank Greenberg (2000) is about the 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. The documentary was awarded Audience Awards at the Hamptons International Film Festival and Washington Jewish Film Festival; Spirit Award for Best Sports Documentary, International Sports Video and Film Awards; top honors from the National Society of Film Critics, the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics Circle and Broadcast Film Critics Association. It also won a CINE Golden Eagle and George Peabody Award.
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. Yoo-Hoo, Mrs. Goldberg won a CINE Golden Eagle and festival audience awards and Women’s Film Critics Circle posthumous Lifetime Achievement Award winner for Gertrude Berg.
Kempner also made a short tragic comedy, Today I Vote for my Joey, about the 2000 election results in Florida.
She is also the co-writer and producer of Casuse, a film about Larry Casuse, a young Native American activist who kidnapped the Mayor of Gallup, New Mexico to draw attention to the plight of the Navajo people and to expose the hypocrisy of the establishment.
Kempner lives in Washington, DC where she plays a prominent role in the artist and film community. She started the Washington Jewish Film Festival in 1990. She is also an activist for voting rights for the District of Columbia.
Her many accomplishments include: A member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, recipient of the 1996 Guggenheim Fellowship and the 2000 DC Mayor’s Art Award: 2001 Women of Vision award from D.C.’s Women in Film and Video chapter, the 2001 Media Arts award from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture and the 2009 San Francisco Jewish Film Festival’s Freedom of Expression Awardee. Kempner received the Bernardo O’Higgins Award and in 2017 and a honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from the University of the District of Columbia in 2018.
She writes film criticism and feature articles for numerous publications, including The Boston Globe, Chicago Tribune, Crystal City Magazine, The Forward, Baltimore Jewish Times, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Legal Times, New York Times, The Wrap, Washington Jewish Week and The Washington Post.
She has written chapters in these various books: God, Faith and Identity in the Ashes: Perspectives of Children and Grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors, Hammerin’ Hank Greenberg: Call Him the Hero of Heroes, When You Need A Little Lift: But Don’t Want To Eat Chocolate, Pay a Shrink, or Drink a Bottle of Gin, Jews and American Popular Culture, What Israel Means to Me, and Daughters of Absence.