On 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.
The 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.”
The 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.
Rebecca 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 and by Gilbert Stuart, who achieved fame for his portrait of George Washington.
However, 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 life.
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.
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.
But 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.
As 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 Sunday schools.
Rebecca 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
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