Phillips, Rebecca Machado

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PHILLIPS, REBECCA MACHADO (1746–1831), pioneering American communal leader. Phillips was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, the eldest of two daughters of María Caetena (Zipporah), and Rev. David Mendes Machado, refugees of the Portuguese Inquisition who had returned to open Judaism in London. Her maternal grandfather, Samuel Nunes Ribeiro, had been a prominent court physician in Lisbon and later a founding member of Governor Oglethorpe's Savannah colony established in 1733, while her father served as cantor of New York's Congregation Shearith Israel and taught in its school. The family's Crypto-Jewish legacy was largely preserved by Rebecca's mother and female relatives, who transmitted accounts of escape from the Inquisition and maintained syncretic Catholic/Jewish rituals long after their return to open Judaism.

Rebecca's father died in 1747 and her mother subsequently remarried, producing a half-sister. In 1762, at age 16, Rebecca wed Jonas Phillips (1735–1803), an Ashkenazi merchant 11 years her senior, and moved with him to New York, where the first of their 21 children was born. Along with Zipporah Levy (1760–1832), daughter of Hayman Levy and wife of Benjamin Mendes Seixas, who also bore 21 children, Rebecca holds the fertility record among early American Jewish women. Most of her children survived to adulthood.

After some years of financial hardship, the Phillips family emerged prosperous from the Revolutionary War; by the early 1780s Jonas was the second wealthiest Jew in Philadelphia, where the family had relocated after the British occupation of New York. A staff of indentured servants, slaves, and a wet nurse permitted Rebecca to devote some of her energies to the synagogue and larger communal affairs. In 1782, she raised funds to purchase ritual objects for the newly founded synagogue, Mikveh Israel. Rebecca made several personal donations over the years, including a scroll of Esther. In 1801 she became a founding member of the Female Association for the Relief of Women and Children in Reduced Circumstances, a Philadelphia organization whose Jewish and gentile members provided food and clothing to indigent women and children. In 1820 she served as first directress and one of 13 managers on the board of the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society of Philadelphia, founded in 1819 to assist the Jewish poor. Rebecca assumed a more central role in household affairs after the death of her husband in 1803. Contemporary reports allude to the high status and respect she enjoyed during her latter years.


A. Ben-Ur, "The Exceptional and the Mundane: A Biographical Portrait of Rebecca Machado Phillips, 1746–1831," in J.D. Sarna and P. Nadell (eds.), Women and American Judaism: Historical Perspectives (2001), 46–80; N.T Phillips, "Family History of the Reverend David Mendez Machado," in: Proceedings ofthe American Jewish Historical Society 2 (1894), 45–61; M.H. Stern. First American Jewish Families: 600 Genealogies, 1654–1988 (1991).

[Aviva Ben-Ur (2nd ed.)]

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Phillips, Rebecca Machado

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