This Day in Jewish History |

1869: Pioneering Philanthropist and Educator Dies

Rebecca Gratz helped women and children in need and filled a vacuum by opening a Hebrew Sunday school.

David Green
David B. Green
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A painting of Rebecca Gratz by Thomas Sully.
A painting of Rebecca Gratz by Thomas Sully.Credit: Wikimedia Commons
David Green
David B. Green

August 27, 1869, is the day that Rebecca Gratz – Philadelphia philanthropist, Jewish educator and humanitarian – died, at the age of 88.

Gratz was born on March 4, 1781 – half a year before the end of the Revolutionary War – in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Her father, Michael Gratz, had immigrated to America in 1752 from Langendorf, in German-speaking Silesia (today in Poland). Her mother was the former Miriam Simon, the American-born daughter of a wealthy Lancaster merchant. Rebecca was the seventh of the couple’s nine children who survived to adulthood. The family moved to Philadelphia, then the capital of the new nation, when Rebecca was still a child.

The Gratz family was accepted into Philadelphia society. They were active members of the Sephardi synagogue Mikveh Israel, founded in the 1740s. But they also moved with ease among the city’s Christian population: Among Rebecca’s brothers, only one married, and that was to a Christian woman, whereas her three sisters who married did so with Jewish men. Five of the siblings, including Rebecca, didn’t marry at all. She did, however, have male suitors, and they, too, included non-Jews.

At the age of 20, Gratz, together with her mother and a sister, founded the succinctly named Female Association for the Relief of Women and Children in Reduced Circumstances, a non-sectarian charity intended to help destitute families. The organization’s bylaws required that its treasurer be “chosen from among the UNMARRIED LADIES of its membership,” a condition that was intended to avoid a situation in which a married woman’s husband legally took control of the funds in her charge.

In 1815, Gratz helped to organize the Philadelphia Orphan Asylum, serving as its secretary for four decades. Four years after its founding, she helped to establish the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society, which had two goals. Its direct purpose was to provide material assistance and education to Jewish women outside the context of a religious congregation. At the same time, however, it was intended as a response to similar Christian-run organizations that, in a growing trend at the beginning of the 19th century, attempted to evangelize Jewish and other women in need of assistance.

On March 4, 1838, Gratz opened the Hebrew Sunday School Society. That may seem like a dubious honor to contemporary American Jews, but at the time, she was helping to fill an important vacuum. In part, this too was a reaction to the successful model of the Evangelical American Sunday School Union, which offered not only religious instruction but also such basics as literacy training, at no charge. (Before the Revolutionary War, less than 10 percent of colonists, it has been estimated, belonged to churches, and the evangelical movement meant to change that.) At the time, Jewish education was limited to boys, and was narrow in its scope. Christian proselytizing among women tended to harp on the limited opportunities that existed for women in Jewish society, while offering them a free education.

Gratz’s Sunday school taught in English, and it offered explanations of Jewish texts and ritual, and not just learning by rote. Its curriculum was written by the distinguished Philadelphia rabbi Isaac Leeser, and published as the “Catechism for Jewish Children: A Religious Manual for House and School.” Leeser even dedicated his text to Rebecca Gratz, writing in a brief prologue: “this little book has been undertaken to assist your efforts, which have so far been crowned with signal success, to form an institution whence the waters of life might flow alike to the rich and the poor…”

Gratz had begun by teaching her 27 nieces and nephews, and had taken responsibility for raising the six children of her sister Rachel, after Rachel’s early death.

The fact that Rebecca Gratz that remained single has been the topic of much scholarly speculation. She was widely recognized as a beautiful woman, and was pursued by many men. For her part, though, she saw advantages to remaining single. In a letter written to a sister-in-law (her letters have been collected by the scholar David Philipson), for example, she explained that it left her free to pursue her benevolent goals: “That which you call the misfortune of single ladies, is in my case converted into a blessing.”

Gratz was apparently in love with Samuel Ewing, a non-Jewish Philadelphia lawyer and the son of the provost of the University of Pennsylvania. She did not marry him, but when he died, in 1846, she is said to have entered the room where his body lay, and put three white roses and a miniature of herself on his heart.

An 1882 article in The Century Magazine speculated that the character of Rebecca in the 1829 book “Ivanhoe,” by the English writer Walter Scott, was based on Rebecca Gratz. Scott had been introduced to Gratz by Washington Irving, a close friend of her family. With “the superb arch of her eyebrows, her well-formed aquiline nose, her teeth as white as pearl and the profusion of her sable tresses,” Scott’s Rebecca, daughter of the money-lender Isaac of York, is said to be the equal of “the proudest beauties of England and is ‘keen-witted’ too.” It is she who heals the hero Ivanhoe back to health after he is wounded in a battle. And she refuses the opportunity to marry outside of the Jewish religion.

In a recent biography of Gratz, however, by Dianne Ashton, the author rejects the theory that Scott had the real-life Rebecca in mind when he wrote the book.

For her part, Gratz was familiar with Scott’s work, and even wrote to a friend, in 1829, how she felt “a little extra pleasure from Rebecca’s being a Hebrew maiden. It is worthy of Scott in a period when persecution has re-commenced in Europe to hold up a picture of the superstition and cruelty in which it originated.”

Rebecca Gratz died on this day in 1869. Her brother Hyman left money for the founding, in her memory, of a Jewish teachers’ college in Philadelphia. Gratz College still exists today, and encompasses a community high school and undergraduate and graduate programs, as well as an adult school.

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