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Of the many contributions Jewish women have made to American life, one of the most enduring is the panoply of volunteer, non-profit institutions they created to serve their fellow Jews in need and to educate Jewish children. Without their initiative, Jewish life in America would have a very different -and likely much diminished- face. Among the countless thousands of women who helped found, sustain and serve American Jewish charitable institutions, none looms larger than Rebecca Gratz (1781-1869). It is widely speculated that Gratz’s selfless devotion to humankind, and particularly to her fellow Jews, inspired Sir Walter Scott to model the character Rebecca in his novel Ivanhoe (which many critics consider the first favorable portrayal of a Jew in English literature) after Rebecca Gratz.
The sixth of twelve children born to Michael and Miriam Gratz, the young Rebecca was well educated, both formally and through considerable reading in her father’s extensive library. The extended Gratz family members were leading merchants of early nineteenth-century America whose commercial activities helped settle Western Pennsylvania, Kentucky and the Ohio Valley. The Michael Gratz family belonged to Philadelphia’s social and economic elite and Rebecca’s friends included many of the city’s leading cultural lights.
Historian Diane Ashton tells us that Gratz once expressed the belief that, through her “unsubdued spirit,” she could overcome any obstacle. Gratz never married; she thought it unlikely that she would find a man who might become an “agreeable domestic companion.” Family lore has it that the beautiful Rebecca turned down a proposal from the son of the president of the University of Pennsylvania because she would not marry outside the Jewish faith. Instead, Rebecca became the family Judaic scholar and chose a life of service to her family, her community and the cause of Jewish education –especially for women.
Gratz began devoting her life to others at age nineteen when her mother recruited her to help care for her father, who had been felled by a stroke. Although not poor, after Michael Gratz’s stroke the Gratz women developed a newfound empathy for other families whose breadwinner could no longer work. Rebecca, her mother and sister joined with 20 other women to found Philadelphia’s Female Association for the Relief of Women and Children in Reduced Circumstances. Her stint as a volunteer for this organization taught Gratz that some Christian women tried to use their philanthropic work to proselytize among the Jewish needy. She became convinced that Jewish women and children required service from their own charitable organizations.
In 1819, Gratz spearheaded the founding of Philadelphia’s Female Hebrew Benevolent Association, the first Jewish charity in America formed outside a synagogue. The society provided food, shelter, fuel, clothing, an employment bureau and travelers’ aid to Jews in distress. In the 1850’s, Gratz helped found an orphanage and a foster home for Philadelphia’s Jewish children. These homes later became the basis for Philadelphia’s Association for Jewish Children.
It was in Jewish religious education for children, however, that Gratz best showed her talents as an institution builder. She always insisted that her many Christian friends respect her Jewish beliefs. Rebecca understood, however, that if Judaism was to be respected by the wider society, Jews themselves would have to be knowledgeable about -and observant in- their faith. Adapting to mid-nineteenth century American life, Gratz wanted to give Jewish education a form resembling the religious instruction received by America’s Christian majority.
Thus, in 1838, she founded Philadelphia’s coeducational Hebrew Sunday School, which she served as superintendent and secretary well into her eighties. Adopting the Sunday school format was only one innovation; she also limited the faculty to females who had graduated from the school, providing American Jewish women with their first public roles in religious training. The school served students ranging in age from early childhood through the teens. Gratz recruited Philadelphia’s illustrious rabbi Isaac Leeser to write the first curriculum for the Hebrew Sunday School. The school expanded to several branches throughout the Philadelphia area and continued as an independent citywide institution until the close of the nineteenth century.
In her long life, Rebecca Gratz outlived all but one sibling and many of her nieces and nephews. Despite her losses, she never surrendered her “unsubdued spirit” or her deep Jewish faith. With great honor, Rebecca Gratz was buried in Congregation Mikveh Israel’s historic cemetery in Philadelphia. Her lasting monument, however, was American Jewry’s Hebrew Sunday School movement, which endures to this day and reflects Gratz’s unique blend of Judaism and American culture.