High School Essay Contest sponsored by The Role Model Project

Second Place Winner:

Rebecca Gratz: Pioneer, Philanthropist, Educator

By Raphael Englander, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 

As I walk home from orchestra rehearsal or the gym, I often find myself passing by a small plaque on one of the cobblestone streets of Philadelphia. The plaque honors the memory of Rebecca Gratz (1791-1869), pioneer, philanthropist and teacher. The plaque is erected just outside of Mikveh Israel Cemetery, where she is buried. Founded in 1740, Mikveh Israel Synagogue counted Rebecca Gratz as one of its members; today, it counts my family. Having been born and raised in Philadelphia, and living here throughout all 17 years of my life, Gratz’s connection with the city sparked my interest in her. Upon learning of her life, I am happy to consider her an inspiration. 

Gratz was a founder of multiple important organizations in Philadelphia. While their specific missions differed, they all shared an emphasis on women’s role within each institution. Women handled all aspects of the work, from broad decision-making to drafting annual financial reports. 

In 1801, Gratz helped found the Female Association for the Relief of Women and Children in Reduced Circumstances, Philadelphia’s first non-denominational women’s charity, which set out to help women whose families were suffering following the American Revolution. She also founded the Philadelphia Orphan Asylum in 1815, offering room and board to orphaned youth, as well as educating them so they would be prepared for apprenticeship when they reached the appropriate age. In 1819, Gratz was once more a founding member of a major Philadelphia organization, this time the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society. The Society, which my mother was secretary of some years ago, just as Gratz herself was, was created to provide Jewish women without husbands, whether because of death, sickness or separation, with clothing, food and other necessities. Today, the society gives monthly stipends, emergency aid and more to poverty-stricken women in Philadelphia. 

Perhaps Gratz’s most significant contribution was the establishment of the American-style Hebrew school. Gratz founded the Hebrew Sunday School (HSS) in 1838, affording Jewish boys and girls a strong Jewish education. The HSS served as the model for Hebrew schools across the nation, becoming a counterpart to their Christian equivalents and redefining early Jewish education. Prior to the implementation of Hebrew schools, childhood Jewish education was constrained to Bar Mitzvah tutoring and private teachers and was exclusive to boys. Because of Gratz, Jewish girls gained access to Jewish education, learning and growing alongside their brothers. 

According to celebrated tradition, Gratz was also the inspiration for the character of Rebecca in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819). Rebecca is a young Jewish woman who chooses to remain a spinster instead of marrying a man of a different faith, a story which is uncannily similar to Gratz’s life. This portrayal of Rebecca as talented, intelligent and staunch in her principles is the first positive instance of a Jew in British fiction. 

I was drawn to Gratz because of our many commonalities. We are both Jews, Philadelphians, and members of the same synagogue. In fact, we share the same birthdate, March 4th (although 214 years apart)! Through this initial interest, I am grateful to have learned more about a remarkable woman who made a positive impact on the world around her. She lived according to her faith, devoting her life to the ethic of Tzedakah/צדקה ,and I truly believe that if we were all a bit more like Rebecca Gratz, the world would be a better place.

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