Gratz, Rebecca

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GRATZ, REBECCA (1781–1869), founder and leader of innovative organizations concerned with women and children. Gratz was born in Philadelphia, the middle child of ten in the family of Michael and Miriam Simon Gratz. She received an elite education at the Young Ladies Academy and at home, where she had access to an extensive library and learned about organizational life from her father, uncle, and brothers, who discussed their businesses, synagogue involvement, and philanthropic associations. Gratz, who never married, outlived all but her youngest sibling, and found meaningful social support and intellectual sustenance managing the organizations she established, in her study of Judaica available in English, and in her literary correspondence with luminaries such as Washington Irving, Maria Edgeworth, Fanny Kemble, and Grace *Aguilar.

In 1801 Gratz and her mother joined 20 Jewish and gentile women to found the Female Association for the Relief of Women and Children in Reduced Circumstances, a women's mutual aid society which enabled married women to raise and dispense funds they could not legally control as individuals. Fourteen years later Gratz helped found the Philadelphia Orphan Asylum (1815). She served as secretary for both associations for more than two decades and advised her sister-in-law, Maria Gist Gratz, in establishing an orphanage in Lexington, Kentucky. Gratz lived with three bachelor brothers and her sister, Sarah, and raised six nephews and nieces following their mother's death in 1823. After Sarah's death, Gratz organized a short-lived and informal Hebrew school for her extensive family taught by an applicant for synagogue ḥazzan. She also developed close relationships with women of her Philadelphia synagogue, Mikveh Israel, and in 1819 organized the first non-synagogal Jewish charity in America, the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society, which remained active in the early 21st century. Gratz served as secretary, writing minutes, annual reports, and corresponding with donors, leaving more prestigious positions to others to ensure their commitment. Jewish women nationwide organized similarly named institutions throughout the 19th century.

To combat Christian evangelism, Gratz convinced the fhbs managers to open the Hebrew Sunday School in 1838. Educators Simha Peixotto and Rachel Peixotto Pyke supplied pedagogical expertise and wrote textbooks while Gratz served as superintendent. Isaac Leeser, ḥazzan at their synagogue, provided guidance and more advanced texts. Female graduates returned as volunteer faculty. Gratz assisted women in Charleston, Savannah, and Baltimore in establishing similar schools and due to her efforts Jewish Sunday schools staffed by female volunteers became the most popular Jewish educational institution in 19th century America. Gratz lived to see Philadelphia's Jewish Foster Home established in 1855. Much younger women shouldered most responsibilities but she assumed the vice presidency. She died with a reputation as the foremost Jewish woman in America. Some descendants thought her the inspiration for Rebecca of York in Sir Walter Scott's novel, Ivanhoe.


anb; D. Ashton, Rebecca Gratz: Women and Judaism in Antebellum America, (1997); E. Bodek, "Making Do: Jewish Women and Philanthropy," in: M. Friedman (ed.), Jewish Life in Philadelphia, 18301940 (1983), 143–62; A. Braude, "The Jewish Woman's Encounter with American Culture," in: Women and Religion in America, vol 1 (1981).

[Dianne Ashton (2nd ed.)]