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Rebecca Gratz 1781 ~ 1869


Rebecca Grantz

Miss Gratz was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, March 4, 1781, died in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, August 29, 1869. She was one of the most distinguished women of her day of the Jewish race in this country. She was one of a family of thirteen children; her father Michael Gratz, a wealthy East India merchant, married Miriam, daughter of Joseph Simon, of Lancaster Pennsylvania, the best known and most respected Hebrew in the state. The names of Joseph Simon, Michael Gratz and Bernard Gratz, his brother, were signed to the "Non-importation Act' the forerunner of the Declaration of Independence which was drafted by Thomas Jefferson in the house then owned by the Gratz brothers. Their signatures with many others of the family may also be seen on the first list of seat holders (1782) of the Congregation Mikve Israel (Hope of Israel) one of the oldest Jewish Congregations in the United States.

 The Gratz home was the center of refinement, culture and hospitality, with the sweet Jewish setting of family affection. Washington Irving delighted "to roost in the big room." Henry Gay, Fanny Kemble and many others met there the best and most cultivated society of Philadelphia. Rebecca had every advantage of education and her friendships were largely among Christians. A most romantic and life-long attachment was formed with her beautiful schoolmate Maria Fenno. Though there were no railroads or steamboats in those days, intercourse by stage between New York and Philadelphia was frequent and upon one of these visits to the former city Maria married Judge Ogden Hoffman, a widower, and most accomplished gentleman with children older than herself. One, a young daughter, Matilda, was the only love of Washington Irving, who was then pretending to study law in her father's office, but Judge Hoffman did not approve of his suit and the lovers were very unhappy. Consumption developed in Matilda Hoffman and Rebecca Gratz and Washington Irving nursed the poor girl until her death. After this Irving went abroad, traveling extensively, he visited Abbotsford, and there told Scott the story of Rebecca Gratz, her personal charm, strength of mind and her steadfastness to her faith.

She had a few years before this refused on account of her faith, to marry a young man who was considered a most suitable match, sacrificing her inclination to follow what she considered her duty. In 1817, when "Ivanhoe" was published Scott sent a copy to Irving saying, "How do you like your Rebecca now?" In 1817 the ladies of Philadelphia opened the first Philadelphia Orphan Asylum. Rebecca Gratz was chosen secretary and served in this capacity for forty-eight years.

In 1855, when past the age when most people think their work is finished, she being then fifty-six years of age she founded the first Sunday school for Jewish children, over which she presided for twenty-five years. This school, in the last year of her service, numbered four thousand pupils, it having opened with but five. In 1855 Miss Gratz started a Jewish Foster Home. Her long experience on the board of the Philadelphia Asylum enabled her to found the infant home, and though she lived to see it well established she could hardly anticipate its present usefulness as a modern institution.

She was connected with every movement for bettering the condition of the poor and the sick of the city among her people. When the unfortunate Civil War occurred she was over eighty, but she stood firm and true to her country. Her one thought was for a united land with no North, no South, no East, no West Rebecca Gratz lived long past the Psalmist's age, but she never lost her wonderful appearance, her charm of manner, her interest in good works, and above all, her devotion to the Jewish faith.

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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