Sept 12, 2004, we celebrated 350 years of Jews in America.
They arrived in 1654, fleeing Portuguese persecution in
Brazil, and settled in New Amsterdam, which became New York
City. The early immigrants were Sephardic Jews, followed
in the mid-nineteenth century by a large German Jewish migration.
A huge third wave of Jewish immigration from Russia and
Eastern Europe began in the late nineteenth century, and
ended in 1924.
American Revolution marked a turning point in modern Jewish
history. Never before had a major nation committed itself
in its Constitution and Bill of Rights to religious freedom.
In 1790, President George Washington’s famous letter
to the Jews of Newport reassured Jews of their place in
the new United States. Using the language of the prophet
Micah (4:4), he said that America could be a Promised Land
for Jews, a place where Jews would “merit and enjoy
the good will of the other inhabitants; while every one
shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and
there shall be none to make him afraid.”
new American nation was full of hope and possibilities with
unprecedented religious freedom for Jews. But there were
few anchors to maintain Jewish identity, since strong Jewish
community services had not been developed. Many of the earliest
Jewish communal organizations in the United States were
started by a woman named Rebecca Gratz.
Gratz was born in 1781 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, the seventh
of twelve children, just five years after the signing of
the Declaration of Independence. Her father, Michael Gratz,
from Silesia, descended from a long line of rabbis, and
her Mother, Miriam Simon, was the daughter of a leading
merchant. The family moved to Philadelphia, where Michael
was a prosperous merchant and landowner and a lay leader
of Mikveh Israel, the first synagogue in Pennsylvania. The
Gratz family practiced traditional Orthodox Judaism, and
Rebecca maintained a life-long commitment to Jewish observance
and education. She was educated in women’s academies
and read books from her father’s extensive library.
Throughout her life, she was well-read, and also an ardent
letter writer, corresponding with leading women writers
of her time.
As a beautiful young lady of an upper class family, she
moved in social circles with the prominent figures of the
time, attending prestigious balls and parties, as well as
literary salons. Her acquaintances included writers, educators,
political figures, actresses, theologians, and artists.
Her portrait was painted by Thomas Sully (pictures)
and by Gilbert Stuart, who achieved fame for his portrait
of George Washington.
there were few marriageable Jewish men of her class. She
rejected a marriage proposal from a lawyer she loved because
he was not Jewish, and remained single all of her life.
An outspoken women, she proclaimed that “there appears
no condition in human life more afflictive and destructive
to happiness and morals than an ill-advised marriage.”
However, she adored children, and was close to her many
nieces and nephews. When her sister died in 1823, she took
her six children to her home and raised them.
When Rebecca Gratz was 19, her father suffered
a severe stroke, and Rebecca became his caretaker. She,
like other single women in her era, became the family nurse.
She attended the births of many of her twenty-seven nieces
and nephews and cared for sick relatives throughout her
As a young woman, Rebecca Gratz visited
Saratoga Springs, New York, and met the writer Washington
Irving. When she learned that his fiancée was gravely
ill, she cared for the woman and nursed her back to health.
Her beauty and devotion impressed Irving so much that he
recounted the story of Rebecca to his friend, Sir Walter
Scott, who named his fictional heroine in Ivanhoe “Rebecca,”
and modeled her after Irving’s description of Rebecca
Gratz was not content with the high society life of dances
and teas. Her first philanthropic project began when she
was 20 years old. In 1801, with other Jewish and non-Jewish
women, she founded the first non-sectarian charitable organization
in Philadelphia, the Female Association for the Relief of
Women and Children in Reduced circumstances. She was the
first secretary of this organization for many years. In
1815, she helped establish the Philadelphia Orphan Asylum,
and served as secretary for its first forty years. As executive
secretary of each organization that she helped found, she
functioned as the chief administrator, maintaining all records
and correspondence and submitting annual reports to the
managing boards each year.
Gratz noticed a change in her Christian neighbors doing
benevolent work. Less than 10% of the Revolutionary generation
of Americans belonged to a Christian church. However, in
the beginnings of the nineteenth century, many more Christians
became active in church life and an evangelical fervor took
hold. The Christian women aiding the poor began proselytizing,
and Jews were a particular target for missionary zeal. She
became convinced that Philadelphia’s Jewish women
and children needed their own charitable institutions. In
1819, she founded the country’s first non-synagogue
associated Jewish charity, the Female Hebrew Benevolent
Society, which provided food and shelter, and later an employment
bureau, for poor Jewish woman and children. Similarly, in
response to the plight of an increasing number of Jewish
immigrants in the 1850’s Gratz founded a Jewish orphanage
in Philadelphia, the Jewish Foster Home, serving as its
vice president when she was over 70 years old.
Christian denominations in the United States became more
active, Gratz worried that American Jews knew too little
about their own religion. In her time, Bar Mitzvah preparation
and private tutoring were the only types of formal Jewish
education available for boys, and there was none at all
for girls. She decided to apply the new Sunday school format
she observed in Christian churches to Jewish education.
In 1838 she established the first Jewish Sunday school system,
the Hebrew Sunday School, and was its president and supervisor
for 26 years. The school was co-educational and offered
Jewish women their first public role in teaching religion
and designing the curriculum in a Jewish school. Gratz advised
women in many other cities on establishing similar Jewish
Gratz, the earliest Jewish American woman activist, died
at age 88. As we celebrate the 350th anniversary of Jews
in America, it is important to recognize Rebecca Gratz.
She believed that women were uniquely responsible for ensuring
the preservation of Jewish life in post-revolutionary America,
and worked to create an environment in which women could
be fully Jewish and fully American.