Part of the American History & Genealogy Project

Jewish Women of America

 

Though woman's activity in communal affairs has been great and potent, its record is one of work so modestly performed that while fully appreciated, there are but few records to be procured on so important a topic. While men have sacrificed property and even life itself for the faith of their fathers, yet some of the most dramatic cases of self-sacrifice and devotion on American soil were cases of Jewish women during the colonization of South America, Mexico and this country and during the wars for our independence and the abolition of slavery. To this day the Spanish and Portuguese congregation of New York shows its gratitude to the women who gave substantial aid in effecting the building of the first synagogue erected in that city in 1730.

In this manner their names have been preserved and all honor is due to Abigail Franks, Simha de Torres, Rachel Louiza, Judith Pacheco, Hannah Michaels and Miriam Lopez de Fonseca. Jewish immigrants continued to come from Spain and Portugal as late as 1767 and in Georgia they were among the earliest settlers of that colony in 1733. Another distinct group were the early German Jews in America, and to this group belongs the Shetfall family.

In 1740 the British government passed an act for the naturalization of foreigners in the American colony and it is remarkable that a large number of Jewish women availed themselves of this act. In Jamaica no less than forty names appear, several of them doubtless related too many of our old American families. Among these Esther Pereira Mendes, Leah Cardoza, Esther Pinto Brandon and similar names. In colonial society prior to the Revolution, several Jewish women took a prominent part and not a few were numbered among the belles of that day.

Among these may be mentioned several ladies of the wealthy and influential Franks family; Abigail Franks married Andrew Hamilton, of Philadelphia. Phila Franks, in 1750, married General De Lancy and their New York home was one of the pretentious mansions of the day and later became the Fraunces Tavern and was the very building in which George Washington delivered his farewell address. A daughter of Joseph Simon, of Lancaster, married Dr. Nicholas Schuyler, subsequently one of the surgeons in the Revolutionary War. Sarah Isaacs, the daughter of a patriot soldier, married outside of her own religion and her son was John Howard Payne, the noted composer of "Home, Sweet Home." Among these Rebecca Frank deserves special mention. She was born of wealthy parents gifted with a ready wit and rare personal beauty, and had access to the most exclusive circle of colonial society. Her grandfather was the sole agent for the British kings for the Northern colonies while her father was the king's agent for Pennsylvania, which readily explains why this family, like so many of the colonial aristocracy, took the king's side in the Revolutionary struggle. Rebecca Franks is mentioned as one of the queens of beauty at the Meschianza, a splendid fete given to General Howe before leaving Philadelphia in 1778. She married Colonel, afterwards General, Sir Henry Johnson. Many distinguished Americans visited her in her English home, among these being General Winfield Scott. Her death occurred in 1823. The great majority, however, were staunch adherents of the patriot cause and several Jewish women figure in Revolutionary history. Among the women of the South are the names of Mrs. Judy Minis and her daughter. The wife of a Revolutionary soldier, she was heart and soul in the cause. A strict observer of Jewish ritual, she prepared the meals for Jewish soldiers taken prisoners by the British, after the fall of Savannah. Her intense patriotism so disturbed the British commander, that for a time he ordered each woman to remain in her house, but finally, owing to their constant communication and assistance to the patriots, Mrs. Minis and her daughter were ordered to leave the town; they accordingly went to Charleston, of which place the husband was one of the patriot defenders. .

In Westchester County we meet another patriotic Jewess, Esther Etting Hays, the wife of David Hays, also a Revolutionary soldier. When Tarleton with a party of British raided the village of Bedford in 1779, Tory neighbors entered the house where Mrs. Hays was lying upon a sick bed with a newborn infant. They demanded information, which she was supposed to possess, concerning the patriot plans, on her refusal to comply the house was set afire. The mother and child were saved only by faithful Negro servants, who conveyed them to a shelter in the wood.

Among the noble examples of Jewish womanhood at this period were Mrs. Moses Michael Hays, of Boston, and Mrs. Reyna Touro, who, in a Puritan community, with hardly any Jewish associations, brought up their children as observant Jews, Judah Touro and his brother becoming the great communal workers of the next generation.

The beginning of the nineteenth century finds women taking a more active part, by their organization of benevolent and charitable institutions. The most prominent name at this period is that of the noblest daughter American Judaism has produced, Rebecca Gratz, who was born in Philadelphia in 1781. Like Rebecca Franks, she, too, was born to wealth and social position; she too moved in the most exclusive society and possessed, like her, beauty, grace and culture. She, too, might, doubtless, have made a match as brilliant, as distinguished as her name-sake, but, unlike her, she was a devout Jewess. Writers have hinted that it was her devotion to her faith that was the sole cause of her remaining unmarried. Her beauty, refinement and wealth of noble qualities, made her beloved by all who knew her, so that we may well look upon her as the ideal American lady and Jewish woman.

Miss Gratz had been the close friend of Matilda Hoffman, Washington Irving's first and only love. Her charm and nobility of character so deeply impressed the great American author, and so enthusiastically did he describe them to his friend, Sir Walter Scott, during his European trip, that the latter is said to have found in her the character he so beautifully depicted as the Rebecca in "Ivanhoe." Among her intimate friends were some of the leading statesmen and writers, Henry Clay and Sully, the artist, among others. This noble woman from the start took a keen interest in every charitable endeavor. Her name is inseparably associated with every benevolent move-ment in Philadelphia during the first half of the nineteenth century.

In 1819 two Jewish women, Mrs. Aaron Levy and Miss Hannah Levy, happened to witness a case of distress in a Jewish family, and at once resolved to call upon other ladies for aid. Their appeal led to the formation of the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society of Philadelphia, in which Miss Gratz at once took a leading part. In 1838 she organized the first Hebrew Sunday School in America, and to it devoted her best efforts. She appealed to the ladies of other cities as well, and thus led to the establishment of similar institutions in New York and Charleston.

As early as 1850 Rebecca Gratz advocated a society to take care of Jewish orphans. Her appeal was finally answered in the organization of the Jewish Foster Home in 1855. She was also active in the Ladies' Hebrew Sewing Society and the Fuel Society. Nor were her labors entirely of a sectarian character. As early as 1801 she was secretary of the Female Association for the relief of women and children, and in 181 5 one of the founders of the Philadelphia Orphan Asylum, winning from the gentile world the highest admiration and sincere regard. Her death occurred in 1869, memory well deserves to be kept fresh by the Jewish women of America for all time.

With Rebecca Gratz were associated three other women who deserve to be mentioned on this occasion. All of them were women of refinement and social standing, thoroughly American by ancestry and intensely devoted to their race and faith. As Leroy-Beaulieu well put it, it is only those Jews who do stand for their race and faith who gain the respect and friendship of the Christian world. The ladies to whom I refer were Mrs. Anna Allen, Miss Louisa B. Hart and Miss Ellen Phillips. They were among the founders of the Hebrew Sunday School and the Jewish Foster Home, and, like Miss Gratz, took a warm interest in all charitable enterprises. Miss Hart was born in 1803 at Easton, Pennsylvania, and to her belongs the credit of founding the Ladies' Hebrew Sewing Society. Miss Phillips was the granddaughter of Jonas Phillips, a Revolutionary soldier, and at her death in 189 1 bequeathed over $100,000 to the charities in which she was interested. Mention should also be made of Mrs. Matilda Cohen (1820-88), a member of the Woman's Centennial Commission in 1876, and Mrs. Rebecca C. I. Hart (also of Revolutionary ancestry) who, for thirty years, was president of the Hebrew Benevolent Society. Did time permit, extended notice should also be given to the names of Mrs. Florence, Miss Pesoa, Mrs. Binswanger, of Philadelphia, of the Moises, and Miss Lopez, of Charleston, Mrs. Pricilla Joachimsen, of New York, the founder of the Hebrew Sheltering Guardian Society, Mrs. Simon Borg, and many others.

Within the past thirty years the Jewish women have done wonderful work in the various fields of charitable endeavor throughout the Union. The societies organized by them are far too great in number, even to be enumerated within the scope of this paper. Much less is it possible to give the names of the noble women who have labored so diligently in behalf of those institutions. Many of them are fortunately here to-day, and we hope will continue to labor in their noble work for many years to come.

In law and medicine some of the earliest to break down the prejudice against women in the professions, were Jewish women. On the stage are the names of Pearl Eytinge and her sister Rose, who appeared with Booth. In art you can point to Miss Katherine Cohen, the gifted pupil of St. Gaudens, who has exhibited her sculptures at the Paris Salon. In the realms of education some of the best private schools during the first half of the nineteenth century were conducted by Jewish women, like Miss Harby and Miss Moise. Since the establishment of the public school system, hundreds of Jewish women have won the admiration of the communities throughout the country for their work as teachers, while in this city the first female assistant superintendent appointed by the Board of Education is a Jewess well known to all, not only as an educator, but as a devoted worker in every department for the betterment of the Jewish community.

Quite a number of names have appeared in the realm of letters. Not to mention contemporaries, we may point to Rebekah Hyneman as a poet of no mean ability, and to Penina Moise, a gifted writer, both in prose and verse, the author of "Fancy's Sketch Book*' and a contributor to various magazines. Her hymns have for many years been chanted throughout the synagogues of the South. Unfortunately few bright rays came into her life, a life which had much of misery and sorrow, closing with years of total blindness. Miss Charlotte Adams has written an appreciative sketch of her, and I know of no sentiment more pathetic than the last words of Penina Moise, "Lay no flowers on my grave. They are for those who live in the sun, and I have always lived in the shadow."

Jewish Women's Work for Charity

Women of America

Source: The Part Taken by Women in American History, By Mrs. John A. Logan, Published by The Perry-Nalle Publishing Company, Wilmington, Delaware, 1912.

 

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