Rebecca Gratz

Rebbeca Gratz

Rebecca Gratz was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on March 4, 1781, a middle child among twelve children. Gratz grew up in Philadelphia’s wealthy society. Rebecca Gratz believed that with an “unsubdued spirit” she could overcome all of life’s difficulties. A pioneer Jewish charitable worker and religious educator, Gratz established and led America’s first independent Jewish women’s charitable society, the first Jewish Sunday school, the Philadelphia Orphan Asylum, and the first Jewish Foster Home in Philadelphia. She surmounted the grief caused her by the deaths of many family members and loved ones, confronted Christian evangelism, and became a civic leader. Gratz’s accomplishments grew out of her own indomitable spirit and her commitments to both Judaism and America. Noting that Christian charitable women evangelized while aiding the poor, Gratz became convinced that Philadelphia’s Jewish women and children needed their own charitable institution. In 1819, she gathered women of her congregation to found the country’s first nonsynagogal Jewish charity, the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society (FHBS). The FHBS provided food, fuel, shelter, and later an employment bureau and traveler’s aid service. The FHBS served only Jewish women and their children, and later coordinated its efforts with those of sewing and fuel societies serving needy local Jews. Gratz offered significant advice and aid to these societies as well. The FHBS remained an independent society until the late twentieth century. An outspoken woman who found few men likely to be an “agreeable domestic companion” for herself, Gratz remained unmarried. She lived with her three bachelor brothers, Hyman, Joseph, and Jacob, and her sister Sarah throughout her life. Despite her skepticism about marriage, Gratz adored children. When Gratz’s sister Rachel died in 1823, leaving six children, Gratz brought the children to her home and raised them. Their father soon purchased the home directly across the street from Gratz. Gratz was the first to apply the Sunday school format to Jewish education. The FHBS women hoped to provide religious education soon after the organization’s founding, but they were unable to do so until 1838, when Gratz established the Hebrew Sunday School (HSS), a coeducational institution, with herself as superintendent. She also served as secretary of the managing society and held both offices until she was in her eighties. Her sister congregants, Simha Peixotto and Rachel Peixotto Pyke, who ran a private school in their home, joined her as teachers, and the Peixotto sisters wrote many of the textbooks initially used by the school. Students ranged in age from early childhood to early teens. The HSS soon attracted students and faculty throughout Philadelphia, and it remained an independent, citywide institution until the close of the twentieth century. By the 1840s, Gratz happily noted that Jewish women were “becoming quite literary.” She touted books by British educator Grace Aguilar, who extolled Judaism and argued its importance to women, and used Aguilar’s books in the HSS. Gratz hoped the school would demonstrate that Jewish women equaled Christian women in religious piety, then considered a mark of civility. The school flourished, opened several branches, and had served over four thousand students by the end of the nineteenth century. By the 1850s, the plight of an increasing number of Jewish immigrants convinced Gratz of the need for the Jewish Foster Home (JFH). Jewish orphan associations in New York and New Orleans, which relied on foster families, became inadequate as immigration increased. Gratz, who had served forty years on the board of the Philadelphia Orphan Asylum, became vice president of the JFH managing society. The JFH later merged with several other institutions to form Philadelphia’s Association for Jewish Children. Gratz outlived all but her youngest sibling, Benjamin, and many of her nieces and nephews. Despite her grief in her last years, she was relieved that what she believed to be the American experiment in freedom had not ended with the Civil War. She was sure that her lasting monument would be the Hebrew Sunday School, a highly successful institution that most reflected her own unique blend of Judaism and American culture. Gratz died on August 27, 1869, and was buried in Mikveh Israel’s historic cemetery in Philadelphia. By the end of her life, a legend claimed Gratz as the prototype for the character of Rebecca of York in Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe, the first favorable depiction of a Jew in English fiction. Jews pointed to Gratz, an Americanized Jewish woman who retained her Jewish loyalty, to argue the truth of the popular tale. Gratz’s own life epitomized the “unsubdued spirit” she admired.