Rebecca Gratz (March 4, 1781 – August 27, 1869) was an American educator, philanthropist, and promoter of religious, educational, and charitable institutions. She founded many organizations including Women and Children in Reduced Circumstances, the Philadelphia Orphan Asylum, and the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society and Hebrew Sunday school. She regarded women as uniquely responsible for ensuring the preservation of Jewish life in America and worked to create an environment in which women could be fully Jewish and fully American. Gratz believed women had a responsibility to educate their children with their faith, and that through this the entire Jewish community would benefit.
Rebecca Gratz was born on March 4, 1781, in Lancaster, Pensylvannia, the seventh of 12 children of Miriam Simon and Michael Gratz. Her mother was the daughter of Joseph Simon (1712–1804), a respected Jewish tradesman, while her father was from a long line of rabbis. Rebecca's parents were active members of Philadelphia’s first synagogue, Mikveh Israel.
Rebecca was well educated, and had attended women’s high school, becoming the first Jewish female college student in the United States, at Franklin College (now Franklin and Marshall College) in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She was well versed in Jewish literature, reading almost all books written by Jewish authors translated into English. She also corresponded regularly with famous people of her day, including British educator Maria Edgeworth, American author Catherine Sedgwick, British actress Fanny Kemble, and Jewish-British theologian Grace Aguilar.
Though Gratz was considered to be among the more beautiful and educated women in her community, she never married. Among the marriage offers she received was from a non-Jewish lawyer, whom she loved, but ultimately chose not to marry on the account of her faith.
Rebecca Gratz died on August 27, 1869, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and is buried at Mikveh Israel Cemetery in Philadelphia.
Much of Rebecca Gratz's life was focused on charity work and educational activities. With her mother and older sister, in 1801, she founded a charitable society for women, the Female Association for the Relief of Women and Children in Reduced Circumstances, and was elected its secretary.
She soon saw the need for an institution for orphans in Philadelphia and was among those instrumental in founding the Philadelphia Orphan Asylum in 1815. Four years later, she was elected secretary to its board, and held this office for 40 years.
After the death of her sister in 1817, Gratz became increasingly religious. She spent more time in studying Judaism and dedicated hours of volunteering work among women and children of the local Jewish community. She led a small Hebrew Sunday school for her family members, modeled on the Christian Sunday school.
Wanting to protect the Jewish community from the increasing proselytizing by Christians, Gratz helped establish the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society in 1819, which became a center of Jewish activities in the local community.
Gratz believed that women, because of their duty to take care of children, had a special responsibility to educate their children in the spirit of their faith. She realized that Christian Sunday schools helped mothers to provide such education, and that the Jewish community did not have anything similar in place. She thus advocated the need to establish Hebrew Sunday schools.
In 1835, Gratz started to advocate among the members of the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society the need to establish a Hebrew Sunday school with a Jewish educational program that would be consistently taught to the children. Three years later, the society established a Sunday school under the direction of the board. Gratz fervently hoped that through such an educational program, not only the children but the whole Jewish community would benefit:
I am gratified at the evident improvement of a large class of children in religious knowledge, more particularly as I find it influencing their conduct, and manners, and gaining consideration in the minds of their parents.… It will be a consolation for much lost time if this late attempt to improve the degenerate portion of a once great people shall lead to some good (Philipson 1929).
Gratz became the school’s superintendent and served it for more than 25 years. Similar schools soon started to open in Charleston, Savannah, and Baltimore. Gratz often traveled to those cities to advise the members.
In 1850, Gratz, under the name "A Daughter of Israel," advocated in the Occident, a magazine widely read in the Jewish community, for the foundation of a Jewish foster home. Her advocacy was largely instrumental in the establishment of such a home in 1855—The Jewish Foster Home. The home received children from all over the United States and Canada. At the age of 74, Gratz was elected its secretary.
Other organizations that came about due to her efforts were the Fuel Society and the Sewing Society.
Gratz's enduring legacy is substantiated in the success of the many institutions she founded. The Female Hebrew Benevolent Society and Hebrew Sunday School continued their work for almost 150 years, while the Philadelphia Orphan Society and the Jewish Foster Home housed thousands of children. The foster home eventually merged with other similar institutions to form the Philadelphia Association for Jewish Children.
It is said that Sir Walter Scott modeled his heroine Rebecca in Ivanhoe after Gratz. Although there is no direct evidence linking Gratz to the novel, many parallels between the two can be found. Similar to Scott’s Rebecca, Gratz was also independent, beautiful, and talented, and chose to remain single in times when women’s primary goal was to marry and have children. Washington Irving, a friend of Gratz, who corresponded frequently with Sir Walter Scott, lent credence to the link between the two.
All links retrieved July 27, 2019.
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