Reality Check

By Jennifer Bitton


The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, an almost fanatical love of justice and the desire for personal independence, these are the features of the Jewish tradition which makes me thank my stars that I belong to it”. -Albert Einstein

If Albert Einstein had not made the above statement, I would have thought it came from this week’s interviewee, Michael Rosenberg.  Mr. Rosenberg’s love of knowledge, passion for the history of government and politics and his personal struggles with physical independence, have made him the extraordinary person he is today.  Not only does he have an abundance of historical knowledge and wisdom, but he also has a great sense of humor and a quick wit that kept me laughing during the entire interview.

Meet Michael Rosenberg:

Michael Rosenberg has been teaching at Jewish schools around Chicago for almost 14 years.  He is known for his great stories, a vast amount of historical knowledge, and for being a teacher who teaches from the heart.

“He always kept it interesting. He related to the students, and told stories about his life that related to what we were learning”.-Arie Crown Alumnus

“Mr. Rosenberg tells great stories.  When you ask a question about something we are learning in class, he is able to answer it from personal experience.” -Hanna Sacks Student

“Mr. Rosenberg’s dedication to the students is inspirational.  It’s amazing to me how he doesn’t focus on himself and is truly only there to teach the students what he loves.” -Arie Crown Faculty Member

Every morning, Mr. Rosenberg heads over to Hanna Sacks Bais Yaakov to teach a Senior college level government course. He then continues on to Arie Crown Hebrew Day School, where he teaches four 8th grade social studies classes. He then packs up again and heads back to Hanna Sacks to teach Freshman Western Civilization.  On Sundays, Mr. Rosenberg teaches the history of Israel and comparative religions at Anshe Emet in Lakeview. On Tuesday evenings, at Ezras Ha-Bonim in Niles Township, he teaches a two-generational parent/teen class on Jewish answers to today’s issues. As exhausting as all of this sounds, this is Mr. Rosenberg’s post-retirement schedule.  His life before teaching was quite different.

Mr. Rosenberg was born on December 25, 1947 on the West side of Chicago.  True to his sense of humor, Mr. Rosenberg commented about the largely celebrated date.

“I was 6-years-old before I found out that all the holiday hoopla wasn’t for me.  My mother just said, ‘All these parades and lights…they’re for your birthday!’”.

His mother, originally from Toronto, managed the women’s hat store in The Palmer House, until she started raising a family.  During this time, she became involved in Na’Amat ( an Israel-focused organization dedicated to serving women and children), which became her life’s passion.  His father, a native Chicagoan, was in the paper supply business. He has two siblings, an older sister, and a younger brother.

Mr. Rosenberg had a lot of trauma in his early life.  At the age of three, he contracted Polio, five years before the vaccine became available.  The virus spread causing paralysis, and around the same time, he contracted Meningitis. By some miracle, the paralysis subsided a few months later.  The doctors weren’t sure but thought that maybe the Meningitis canceled out the paralysis caused by the Polio. After spending months in the hospital, in and out of quarantines, he was able to leave the hospital. One of his legs was severely damaged, but he was able to use an orthopedic device that allowed him to lead a normal life.  He recognizes the pain and suffering he endured, but he also recognizes how he came out of it stronger while framing who he is as a person.

As many who already know him can attest to, Mr. Rosenberg loves reading and learning everything about history.  His love of learning began at a young age. “Because I had a disability as a child, I found a lot of worlds in books.  I read the encyclopedia for fun. My mom would take it away as a punishment.”

His elementary school noticed his extraordinary memory.  The principal called his mother into school for a meeting and told her that her son was able to remember specific details from random pages throughout any book. “They would say things like, ‘What was on page 310 of this book?’ and I would say, ‘A picture of Alexander Hamilton’.  I’m not smart Mrs. Bitton, but I have an amazing memory”. (Not true…he’s also really smart).

Mr. Rosenberg went on to become a successful high school student.  He was president of his class and was involved with sports such as softball and basketball.  Then, as if he knew my next question, his wit just busted out again. “I had a great outside shot.  Not just because of the polio, but because I’m short.”

At this point in the interview, I knew it was going to take longer than I anticipated. Every five minutes or less he would say something hysterically funny and I would stop to laugh.  I asked him how he played sports with an orthopedic device. “Well, I did break it sliding into 3rd base. The doctor said, ‘We don’t even know how to fix this. People with your problem don’t slide into 3rd base!”  

He also told me that when he walks there is a clicking sound. “My friends used to say ‘we all hang out together, but Rosenberg has an actual clique(click)’.”       

He had a few summer jobs, including loading trucks, working as a day camp counselor and as a camp bus driver.  It was during this time that he built a deep respect for hard work. He went to the University of Illinois in Urbana and got an undergraduate degree in history.  He then continued to Law school, where he earned a Juris Doctorate (JD). He practiced law for 35 years as the General Counsel for the Water Reclamation District.

“Let me quote my students, ‘You mean you were the attorney for the poop palace on Howard?’”.

His practice focused on many issues, such as environmental law, trying to protect Lake Michigan and the waterways, flood control and various related lawsuits around the city.

Along with teaching Hebrew school at night, he was on the local school board, eventually becoming the president. In 1990, Mr. Rosenberg received the Superior Public Servant Award as the “Outstanding Professional Employee”. He received the “Those Who Excel Award for school board service from the Illinois State Board of Education and later, a Teacher of the Year award.

Yet, even after everything he overcame and achieved, his greatest accomplishment has been his over 47-year marriage to Sally Rosenberg.  

“Sally had moved up here from Louisville, KY. She came here with friends that I knew from The University of Illinois.  I walked into a party and saw her from across the room and said to the friend I came with ‘I have just seen the girl I am going to marry’.  Yes, Mrs. Bitton, that is absolutely true”.

Today, they have two sons, two granddaughters and one grandson.  One lives here with his family and the other lives in Paris with his family.

Today, Mr. Rosenberg is a full-time teacher. This was not a part of his retirement plan.  He had retired from a 35-year career as a government lawyer and was not actively looking for a job.  He still had a love of history, and he continued to learn and read in his free time. In 2005, his niece was teaching at Arie Crown, when the 8th-grade social studies teacher left school sick.  His niece called and asked if he could come quickly to teach the class (he lived across the street from Arie Crown and still does today). That day, he took over the class and hasn’t left since in 2005.  

“My love for history is so great, that if I wasn’t teaching and talking about it, I would probably just be boring other people. It’s what I talk about all the time. I’m not big on names and dates, I try to look at what happened in the past that affects us now.  My students don’t have to memorize dates, they have to look at and get what’s called the big picture”.

Mr. Rosenberg later began teaching at Hanna Sacks, because his graduating 8th-grade students wanted to continue taking his classes.  

Mr. and Mrs. Rosenberg try to visit Paris when possible and were just there this past July. Their favorite trip is their yearly pilgrimage to New York.  They go to shows, restaurants and of course, the New York Historical Society. They have visited Israel but would love to go again. I asked Mr. Rosenberg if he could go to a place he’s never been, where would it be.  He said the Maharal Shul in Prague.

I  also asked him to tell me three funny facts that no one would know about him.

“I am an incredible parallel parker, I can pack more into a trunk than anyone you’ve ever met, and I can hang a spoon on my nose and dance around the room without the spoon falling”.

He also dances and has won dance contests at different venues around Chicago. Perhaps it’s genetic. In 1928, his father was voted “The Best Dancer in Chicago” by dancing the Charleston at a Navy Pier dance contest.

Mr. Rosenberg’s advice to the world: When you get to an obstacle that you can’t get over…then you HAVE to get over.  That’s how I live my life.