By Seymour Sy Brody
Rebecca Gratz was a devout Jew who dedicated her life to the service of the less fortunate in America. She was born in Philadelphia in 1781 into a wealthy and highly esteemed family that supported the American Revolution. As a young lady, she was one of the most beautiful and gracious women of her time. The attributes didn't deter her from devoting her life to needy and charitable causes.
When she was 20, she organized the Female Association for the Relief of Women and Children of Reduced Circumstances in Philadelphia. She served as its first secretary and was a motivating force in its administration and in raising much needed funds. Gratz was also one of the founders of the nonsectarian Philadelphia Orphan Asylum, chartered in 1815 and served as its secretary for more than 40 years.
Sensing that there was a further need to service the needy and the unfortunate in the Jewish community, she organized and founded the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society in 1819. She created the Jewish Foster Home and Orphan Asylum in 1855 and led in the establishment of the Fuel Society and the Sewing Society.
While she was involved with these charitable organizations, she also managed to raise the nine children of her sister, Rachel, who died in 1823.
Rebecca Gratz was always concerned about the religious education of Jewish children. In 1818, she conducted a religious school for 11 Jewish children in her home with the help of an itinerant young rabbinical scholar from Richmond. Unfortunately, the school didn't last long.
Using the Christian Sunday school as a model, she tried again. In 1818, she organized a counterpart. Under the sponsorship of the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society, the Hebrew Sunday School Society of Philadelphia was created on March 4, her birthday, with about 60 students. She served as its president until 1864. The school was opened to children from all parts of the Philadelphia Jewish community without a fee.
Many Americans called Rebecca Gratz "the foremost American Jewess of her day." Her fame was widespread as many people believed that she was the prototype for Sir Walter Scotts's Rebecca, a Jew, in his novel, Ivanhoe.
Rebecca Gratz, in her time, was one of the most noble women in the world, who can be compared in modern times, for her work, devotion, and dedication to the needy, to a Mother Teresa of the Catholic faith. She died in 1869 at the age of 88 and was buried in the Mikveh Israel Cemetery in Philadelphia.
This is one of the 150 illustrated true stories of American heroism included in Jewish Heroes & Heroines of America : 150 True Stories of American Jewish Heroism, © 1996, written by Seymour "Sy" Brody of Delray Beach, Florida, illustrated by Art Seiden of Woodmere, New York, and published by Lifetime Books, Inc., Hollywood, FL.
Source: Jewish Heroes and Heroines in America. Photo: Library of Congress