Raise your hand if you attended Hebrew school, whether after school or on Sunday mornings. Did you know that you have a Jewish Pennsylvania native, Rebecca Gratz (1781-1869) to thank for that education.
Rebecca Gratz’s first attempt to organize Jewish religious education took place in her home in 1818. However, it was not until 1838 that she was able to create the Hebrew Sunday School Society of Philadelphia (HSSS). This first school, of which Gratz was the superintendent, had 60 students. By the turn of the century, over 4,000 students had received a Jewish education through HSSS. In addition to providing a basic Jewish education to the community’s youth, HSSS provided the first opportunity for Jewish women to teach Jewish subjects.
Gratz’s life-long commitment to community activism actually began in 1801, when she, together with others, co-founded Philadelphia’s Female Association for the Relief of Woman and Children in Reduced Circumstances. In 1815, Gratz was instrumental in the creation of the Philadelphia Orphan Asylum. She then brought her skills to the Jewish community and created the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society (1819), as well as the Jewish Foster Home (1855). She acted as Secretary for all of these organizations.
Gratz’s personal life was no less fascinating. One of 12 children born into a prominent Jewish family, she was connected to important literary and intellectual circles. Additionally, when her sister Rachel passed away in 1823, Gratz assumed responsibility for her children (at least 6 of whom were still minors).
Although Gratz never married, she was not without suitors. One popular legend is that she was in love with a man who was not Jewish and therefore would not marry him. It is also rumored that Rebecca Gratz was the model for Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe character Rebecca, a Jewess who refuses to renounce her faith.
March is Women’s History Month.
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