When Robert Meeropol was 6 years old and his brother Michael was 10, their biological parents, Ethel and Julius Rosenberg, were executed by the US government, in a case that still shocks, compels and divides the country. It was 1953.
The Cold War was in full flower and Ethel and Julius were caught up in a political climate that demanded retribution. In this climate, the Rosenbergs were found guilty of espionage and conspiracy to give military secrets to the Soviets after a 1951 trial. Much drama was at play in the trial, with elements including: family betrayal, anti-Semitism, a Jewish judge and lawyers who wanted to distance themselves from communism—and the idea that threatening Ethel would lead Julius to confess. These were some of the many factors in the complicated, tragic road that led to the couple’s executions.
The deaths of Ethel and Julius orphaned their two young sons, who were devastated. “My grandmother left my dad and uncle with a babysitter when she was called to testify before the grand jury that was investigating my grandfather,” Jennifer Meeropol, Robert’s daughter, told Kveller. “When she was arrested after her testimony, and never came home again, the boys bounced from household to household, eventually spending time in an orphanage.”
Today, Robert and Michael continue to advocate for a pardon for Ethel, while Jennifer Meeropol serves as Executive Director of the Rosenberg Fund for Children—a 27-year-old, Massachusetts-based foundation established by her dad to aid children whose activist parents have been harassed, arrested, or incarcerated because of their efforts to promote progressive values. They’ve helped the kids of activists whose causes range from fighting racism and police brutality to supporting civil liberties, human rights, environmental justice, women’s and LGBTQ equality, and peace. As the climate of radical activism and potential suppression heats up in the new Trump era, one imagines that their work will be more needed than ever.
The pair of boys was eventually adopted, and they credit their ability to persevere –and even prosper–to the emotional support they received from teachers Abel and Anne Meeropol, their adoptive parents, and to the artistic community that embraced their new family. What’s more, the brothers have said that their exposure to the arts, in particular music and theater, was profoundly healing for them.
This explains why the arts are a priority for the Rosenberg Fund’s grant-making, says Meeropol. The foundation is small, dispensing approximately $370,000 a year, almost all of it raised by donations from individuals who support the RFC’s mission. But with that budget, its grants allow the children of targeted activists to access the everyday pleasures and extracurriculars that most kids take for granted—among them, going to summer camp, taking music, dance, painting, gymnastics, or karate classes, playing on a sports team, or going on a class trip.
“We don’t tell the children what they should participate in or want,” Meeropol says.“They tell us what they’ll find most useful when they or their parents apply for funding.” Of course, this sometimes means that a particular child requests something completely different: Money for therapy, books for college, or funds so that they can visit a parent or grandparent in a prison located hundreds of miles from their home.
Almost nothing about RFC’s grant-making, Meeropol stresses, is formulaic or predictable.
And unlike other foundations, the RFC’s grants are typically not one-shot deals. “We try to make a multi-year commitment, $3,000 per year, per child, until there is no longer financial need in that family,” she says.
Take a child who has been moved to a school in a neighboring town to protect her from harassment due to a parent’s involvement in a political cause. “Once that child has settled in and made friends, it doesn’t make sense to move her,” says Meeropol. “In some cases, we provide funds for five, six, seven consecutive years.”
The RFC is all about trying to offer normalcy to kids, which means it does not fund legal representation, although it does make referrals as needed. Its objective, Meeropol says, is intentionally narrow and the Fund’s three full-time and two part-time staff work hard to determine how best to help the applicants who qualify because each applicant has specific needs.
In one case, for example, a grantee’s parent was seen marching in a Gay Pride parade and was subsequently fired from her job. In another, a loss of income led to an eviction and a period of homelessness. Still another involved an environmental activist who had protested the corporate dumping of toxins into a local stream. He came home to find that someone had poisoned the family dog and then dumped the carcass on his doorstep.
“In this case he and his partner worried that their four-year-old might be harassed at school. We were able to provide a grant so that the child could attend daycare in a safer community,” Meeropol says. “It also allowed the parents to pay someone they trust to care for the child when they are away from home.”
Online, the fund lists other grants they’ve awarded: they go to the children of whistleblowers, people who document police brutality, union organizers trying to organize their workplaces. Often, the need arises because of a parent’s lost job. Sometimes it’s worse: an arrest, a beating, a deportation.
In addition to disseminating grants to about 150 families a year, the Fund organizes periodic gatherings of current and former beneficiaries, who range from school-aged upwards. The children of political activists often feel isolated, Meeropol says, and the gatherings give them a way to meet one another and serve as mentors and instructors, sharing strategies and tactics while having fun.
Of course, the financial support is crucial, but so is the moral support, “knowing that thousands of people from all over the country support the Rosenberg Fund and donate so that their children can go to camp, attend therapy, or take music or art classes,” Meeropol adds.
She is clearly proud of this aspect of their work. “My dad always says that he started the Fund as constructive revenge, a way of providing support to people going through financial and emotional challenges because of their activism,” Meeropol says. “It’s also a counter, a push-back, to our opponents who say that you can’t be a good parent if you’re a political activist. For the families we work with, it’s not an either/or. Being an activist is something they’re compelled to do. It’s the only way they know to create the world they want for their children and for other people’s children.”