Rebecca Gratz (1781-1869), the best-known member of the prominent Jewish family in 18th-19th century Philadelphia, was reputed to have been the model for Rebecca in Walter Scott's novel Ivanhoe. She had a wide acquaintance, including many literary figures, and earned a name for herself for both her extensive and energetic work in social welfare and her inveterate letter writing. The content for this feature is taken from the Rebecca Gratz exhibit on the Jewish Women's Archive website.

As the founder and secretary of Philadelphia's earliest women's philanthropic organizations, Rebecca Gratz helped define a new identity for American women. Like other women of her era, Gratz believed that benevolent work was an appropriate extension of women's roles so long as it was done quietly. She devoted her adult life to providing relief for Philadelphia's underprivileged women and children and securing religious, moral and material sustenance for all of Philadelphia's Jews. An observant Jew living in a predominantly Christian nineteenth century culture, Gratz integrated her American experience and Jewish identity to establish the first American Jewish institutions run by women, including the first Hebrew Sunday school and Jewish orphanage. She believed that women were 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.

Rebecca Gratz

Gratz's enduring legacy can be measured by the success and longevity of the many institutions she founded. The Philadelphia Orphan Society (1815) and Female Association (1801) provided material sustenance to thousands of women and children. The Jewish Foster Home (1855) thrived until it eventually merged with other institutions to create the Philadelphia Association for Jewish Children. The Female Hebrew Benevolent Society (1819) and Hebrew Sunday School (1818) continued their work for almost 150 years. In 1986, the flourishing School merged with the Talmud Torah Schools of Philadelphia and continues to provide coeducational Jewish learning for thousands of young students.

Historian Dianne Ashton writes, "By training younger Jewish women in administering the agencies she founded, Gratz ensured that the FHBS, HSS and JFH would continue to flourish long after her death. In their work, these organizations continued to provide Jewish women and children a way to be both fully Jewish and fully American."[*]

[*] Ashton, Dianne, Rebecca Gratz (Detroit: Wayne State University Press 1997).
From the Rebecca Gratz exhibit on the Jewish Women's Archive website.




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