Gratz, Rebecca (1781–1869)

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Gratz, Rebecca (1781–1869)

American founder of five charitable, religious, and educational organizations for needy women and children, who permanently shaped religious education and women's activities in American Jewish life. Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on March 4, 1781; died on August 27, 1869, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where she lived most of her life; daughter of Michael Gratz (a merchant, originally from Silesia) and Miriam (Simon) Gratz of Lancaster, Pennsylvania; attended the Young Ladies Academy in Philadelphia and possibly another unnamed women's school, but largely educated through her own eager and extensive reading in literature and history; never married.

Founded Female Association (1801), the Philadelphia Orphan Asylum (1815), the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society (1819), the Hebrew Sunday School (1838), and the Jewish Foster Home (1855), all in Philadelphia.

Rebecca Gratz believed that with an "unsubdued spirit" she could overcome all of life's difficulties. A pioneer Jewish charitable worker and religious educator, Gratz established and led important altruistic and religious organizations, including America's first independent Jewish women's charitable society, the first Jewish Sunday school, the Philadelphia Orphan Asylum, and the first American Jewish Foster Home. She surmounted the grief caused her by the deaths of many family members and loved ones, confronted Christian evangelists who tried to convert her from Judaism, and became a leader in education, charity, religion, and cultural life in Philadelphia. Gratz's accomplishments grew out of her own dauntless spirit and her commitments to both Judaism and America.

Born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on March 4, 1781, a middle child among ten children born to Michael Gratz of Silesia and Miriam Simon Gratz of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Gratz grew up in Philadelphia's wealthy society. Her father, her uncle Barnard Gratz, and her grandfather Joseph Simon engaged in Indian trading, land speculation, and coastal shipping. Her brothers Simon, Hyman, Joseph, Jacob, and Benjamin expanded the family financial interest in the American west. Their far-flung enterprises required a constant flow of letters to maintain communication, and in the Gratz home, letter writing was a serious and constant activity. Family matters mixed with business concerns, and Michael Gratz's daughters, as well as his sons, embraced correspondence. Gratz's letters to her brothers Joseph and Benjamin reveal her deep affection for these men. Joseph's lively wit, taste for adventure, and social ease made him a favorite companion for Gratz, and the pair shared a friendship with literary humorist Washington Irving. Four years younger than Gratz, Joseph often accompanied her on trips to vacation spots like the New Jersey shore, the hot springs in Saratoga, New York, and New York City, where they visited long-time friends. As a young woman, Gratz would also travel with her younger sister, Rachel , along with one of her brothers. Accustomed from youth to the highly charged political atmosphere of post-Revolutionary Philadelphia, Gratz became and remained a fervent patriot throughout her life.

In her youth, Rebecca Gratz attended the Assembly Balls, dances that furthered social alliances among Philadelphia's leading families. An intelligent woman who loved literature, she was part of a circle of writers, including Irving and James Kirk Paulding, who contributed to the Port Folio literary magazine, although she herself never published. After abandoning her early poetry, Gratz confined her literary talent to an extensive correspondence and to the annual reports of her organizations. Her correspondents included British educator and novelist Maria Edgeworth , American author Catherine Sedgwick , renowned British actress Fanny Kemble , Jewish-British theologian and educator Grace Aguilar , and other less notable and distant friends and family. About 1822, shortly after Edgeworth published Harrington, Gratz wrote to the author protesting the book's depiction of a marriage between a Jewish woman and a Christian man. Enormously influenced by the glamour of political heroism, Gratz preferred Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe, in which a Jewish woman refuses to wed the Christian hero of the tale out of loyalty to her faith and her father. American writer Catherine Sedgwick admired Gratz and sought a more intimate relationship with her, but Gratz, herself a member of Philadelphia's elite society, was hardly pleased with Sedgwick's New England snobbery. Ultimately, the two women shared only a concern for their mutual friend, Fanny Kemble, whose divorce from Georgia plantation owner Pierce Butler scandalized many. When Butler refused to allow Fanny to see her daughters, Gratz and Sedgwick, who both admired Kemble's readings of British classics, rallied to her side and provided a conduit for letters between Kemble and her daughters. Gratz's criticisms of Christian literary women, such as Edgeworth and Sedgwick, contributed to her appreciation of Grace Aguilar, whose work asserted that Jewish spirituality equalled or surpassed that of Christianity and who addressed a primarily female reading public.

There are many kinds of trials in this life, but an unsubdued spirit can overcome them all.

—Rebecca Gratz

Although Gratz argued strenuously for Judaism's equality with Christianity, she argued equally for Jewish social integration. The children of Alexander Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton , publisher John Fenno, as well as the Reverend John Ewing, president of the University of Pennsylvania, were among her closest friends. Gratz was so well known in elite Philadelphia circles that Irving asked her to introduce famous portrait painter Thomas Sully to Philadelphia patrons when the artist moved there early in his career. The collected Gratz family portraits include many by Sully, Edward Malbone, and Gilbert Stuart. In addition to important synagogue responsibilities and Gratz's own organizations, the Gratz siblings together promoted the city's Athenaeum, a "Deaf and Dumb" Home, the Academy of Fine Arts, and various libraries.

Well educated for her day, Gratz attended women's academies and utilized her father's extensive library which was stocked with literature, histories, and popular science. To it, she added Judaica, seeking original new works in English, works recently translated into English, as well as requesting new books and early readings of works-in-progress from knowledgeable American Jews like Isaac Leeser and educator Jacob Mordecai.

At 19, Gratz was recruited as a family nurse to help her mother care for her father, who had suffered a stroke. Although Gratz at first found nursing "agonizing," she remained the family nurse throughout her life, sharing duties with her unmarried older sister Sarah Gratz , who died in 1817. Gratz's three married sisters, Frances, Richea , and Rachel, together had 28 children, and Gratz assisted at most births. As family nurse, she also tended dying relations, including her parents, both of whom died before her 30th year, as well as many of the 19 nieces and nephews whom she outlived.

While nursing her father, Gratz joined her mother, sister, and 20 other women, Jewish and Gentile, to found Philadelphia's non-sectarian Female Association for the Relief of Women and Children in Reduced Circumstances (c. 1801). Gratz was its first secretary and held that office for many years. Established in the wake of a national economic collapse and before married women held the right to own property, this organization served as a mutual-aid society for wealthy women whose husbands or fathers risked financial ruin. In 1815, Gratz helped establish the Philadelphia Orphan Asylum and served as secretary for its first 40 years. In the 1830s, she advised her sister-in-law, Maria Gist Gratz , on creating and running the first orphan asylum in Lexington, Kentucky.

Rebecca Gratz sought the post of executive secretary in each of the institutions she founded. As secretary, she not only maintained organizational records but annually addressed the managing boards on policy in each year-end secretary's report. The institutions regularly published her reports as pamphlets or in the popular press in order to raise public support for their work. The secretary's role enhanced Gratz's authority and provided a public forum from which to advance her own ideas about the ways in which her organizations could promote both women's roles and Judaism in Philadelphia and in America. Her Jewish institutions especially reflected her own strong leadership.

Noting that Christian charitable women evangelized while aiding the poor, Gratz became convinced that Philadelphia's Jewish women and children needed their own charitable institution. In 1819, she gathered women of her religious congregation to found the country's first independent Jewish charity, the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society. The FHBS provided food, fuel, shelter, and later an employment bureau and traveler's aid service. During the years of Gratz's leadership, the FHBS served only needy American Jewish women and their children, refusing aid to both emissaries from Jewish settlements in the "Holy Land" and local Jewish women seeking loans for which they could offer substantial collateral. The FHBS also coordinated its efforts with those of sewing and fuel societies serving needy local Jews, organizations to which Gratz also offered significant advice and aid soon after their founding. The FHBS remained an independent society until the late 20th century.

Gratz's religious beliefs reflected her family's membership in Mikveh Israel as well as her

own avid readings in Judaism, literature, and popular philosophy, along with lively discussions with Christian friends. Although Gratz, like most Jewish women and some men, knew no Hebrew, her congregation's early use of prayer books imported from England, with English translations on facing pages, allowed her a satisfying and devoted synagogue experience throughout her life. She also found religious insight in Shakespeare's dramas and sonnets and gleaned moral guidance from novelists like Thomas Carlyle. She insisted that her Christian friends respect her own understandings of Biblical texts and frequently argued Judaism's truth. She also insisted on Jews' right to be treated as equals, both as citizens and as pious individuals, under the U.S. Constitution. These lifelong religious discussions shaped her religious ideas and deepened her convictions. While Gratz believed that American religious freedom presaged a new epoch in Jewish history, she also believed that if Jews were to be respected by the Christian majority they must become religiously knowledgeable and observant. Consequently, she was appalled by Judaism's nascent reform movement, which renounced Zion and diminished ritual.

An outspoken woman who thought few marriages happy and few men likely to be an "agreeable domestic companion" for herself, Gratz remained unmarried. She lived with her three bachelor brothers, Hyman, Joseph, and Jacob, and an unmarried sister, Sarah, throughout her life. Despite her skepticism about marriage, Gratz adored children. Around 1818, after Sarah's death, Gratz organized an informal Hebrew school in her home for the children of her extended family, instructed by a young rabbi hoping for employment at her synagogue. When Gratz's sister Rachel died in 1823 leaving six children, Gratz brought the children home with her and raised them. Their father soon purchased the home directly across the street from Gratz. She developed an especially close relationship with her nieces, Miriam Moses Cohen, Sarah Moses Joseph , and Rebecca Moses Nathan . Rachel's youngest child, Horace Moses, who moved into Gratz's home when he was only two years old, continued to live with Gratz and her brothers throughout his youth and eventually became the executor of her estate.

Gratz was the first to apply the Sunday School format to Jewish education. The FHBS women hoped to provide religious education soon after the organization's founding, but they were unable to do so until 1838, when Gratz established the Hebrew Sunday School (HSS), a co-educational institution, with herself as superintendent. She also served as secretary of the managing society and held both offices until she was in her 80s. Her sister congregants, Simha Peixotto and Rachel Peixotto Pyke , who ran a private school in their home, joined her as teachers, and the Peixotto sisters wrote many of the text books initially used by the school. Gratz wrote morning prayers which she recited to the students each Sunday morning, and which they repeated after her. She also determined the format of the school day, which she adapted from the highly successful schools run by the Protestant American Sunday School Union, headquartered in Philadelphia. As a result, while Philadelphia's synagogues were unable to satisfactorily educate even a small minority of the city's Jewish children, Gratz's school offered instruction in the principals of Judaism and individual attention to students through its large volunteer faculty of women and resulting small classes. Students ranged in age from early childhood to early teens. The HSS soon attracted students and faculty throughout Philadelphia, and it remained an independent, city-wide institution until the close of the 20th century.

The HSS offered Jewish women their first public role in teaching religion and determining curriculum in a Jewish school. Only female graduates were invited to join the faculty and the HSS' teacher-training program furthered the women's religious education. The curriculum focused especially on basic Jewish beliefs, enhancing the role of Jewish women, and training students to refute Christian evangelists. Gratz advised her niece Miriam in Charleston, Savannah, and Sarah Lopez , a former teacher in the Philadelphia school who relocated to Baltimore, Maryland, on establishing similar schools there. Their efforts prompted a controversy among the country's leading Jewish educators. Philadelphia's Isaac Leeser, who wrote and translated Jewish catechisms for the school and publicized the HSS, encouraged Jewish women around the country to take similar action. Baltimore's rabbi David Einhorn, on the other hand, railed against the Hebrew Sunday School as offering only a women's religion that distorted Judaism and warped children's minds. Cincinnati's Isaac Mayer Wise believed men ought to appreciate the women's efforts. By the 1840s, Gratz happily noted that Jewish women were "becoming quite literary." She touted books by England's Aguilar, who extolled Judaism and argued its importance to women, and used Aguilar's books in the HSS. Gratz hoped the school would demonstrate that Jewish women equalled Christian women in religious piety, then considered a mark of civility. The school flourished, opened several branches, and served over 4,000 students by the end of the 19th century.

During the 1850s, the plight of an increasing number of Jewish immigrants convinced Gratz of the need for a Jewish Foster Home (JFH). Jewish orphan associations in New York and New Orleans, which relied on foster families, grew inadequate as immigration increased. The first residential homes in those cities were not exclusively for the use of Jewish children. The elderly Gratz, who had served 40 years on the board of the Philadelphia Orphan Asylum, became vice president of the JFH managing society soon after its founding in 1855. Already in her 70s, Gratz at first preferred to limit her activities to committee work, and served on those selecting and overseeing the matron, purchasing the building, and regularly visiting the home. Instead, she guided her niece Louisa Gratz , and a young woman of her congregation, both unmarried, to assume leadership while serving as overall advisor to the young institution. But soon after its founding, the board pressed Gratz to take a more formal role, and she agreed to the vice presidency. By then, she had earned a considerable reputation both locally and around the country, and her presence on its board legitimized the new institution in the public mind. The JFH later merged with several other institutions to form Philadelphia's Association for Jewish Children. Largely due to Gratz's influence, Hyman Gratz, her older brother, bequeathed the funds for the founding of the first independent college of Jewish studies in America, Gratz College.

Rebecca Gratz outlived all but her youngest sibling, Benjamin, and many of her nieces and nephews. Despite her grief in her last years, she was relieved that what she believed to be the American experiment in freedom had not ended with the Civil War. She was sure that her lasting monument would be the Hebrew Sunday School, a highly successful institution that most reflected her own unique blend of Judaism and American culture. Gratz died on August 27, 1869, and was buried in Mikveh, a historic cemetery. By the end of her life, a legend claimed Gratz as the prototype for the character of Rebecca of York in Sir Walter Scott's novel, Ivanhoe, the first favorable depiction of a Jew in English fiction. Jews pointed to Gratz, an Americanized Jewish woman who retained her Jewish loyalty, to argue the truth of the popular tale. Gratz's own life epitomized the "unsubdued spirit" she admired.


Ashton, Dianne. "'Souls Have No Sex': Philadelphia Jewish Women and the American Challenge," in Friedman, ed. When Philadelphia Was the Capitol of Jewish America. Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1993, pp. 34–57.

Bodek, Evelyn. "Making Do: Jewish Women and Philanthropy" in Murray Friedman's Jewish Life in Philadelphia 1830–1940. Philadelphia, PA: ISHI Press, 1983, pp. 143–162.

Braude, Ann. "The Jewish Woman's Encounter with American Culture," in Reuther and Keller, eds. Women and Religion in America. Vol. 1. NY: Harper & Row, 1981, pp. 150–192.

Cohen, Mary M. An Old Philadelphia Cemetery: The Resting Place of Rebecca Gratz. City History Society of Philadelphia, 1920.

Osterweis, Rollin G. Rebecca Gratz: A Study in Charm. 1935.

Rosenbloom, Joseph. "Rebecca Gratz and the Jewish Sunday School Movement in Philadelphia," in Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society. Vol. 47, no. 2, 1958, pp. 71–75.

——. "Some Conclusions about Rebecca Gratz," in Essays in American Jewish History. Cincinnati, OH: American Jewish Archives, 1958, pp. 171–186.

Wolf, Edwin II, and Maxwell Whiteman. The History of the Jews of Philadelphia from Colonial Times to the Age of Jackson. Philadelphia, PA: Jewish Publication Society, 1957.


Gratz Family Papers, Manuscript Collection #236, and the Henry Joseph Collection, American Jewish Archives, Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, Ohio.

Rebecca Gratz Papers, American Jewish Historical Society, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts.

Gratz Family Papers, Collection #72, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Miriam Moses Cohen Papers, Southern History Collection University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Philipson, David, ed., The Letters of Rebecca Gratz, 1929.

Dianne Ashton , Professor of Religion, Rowan University, Glassboro, New Jersey, and author of Unsubdued Spirits: Rebecca Gratz and the Domestication of American Judaism (Wayne State University Press, 1998)