Rebecca Gratz devoted much of her life to providing relief for underprivileged women and children in Philadelphia, as well as religious sustenance for Jews in a predominately Christian society.
To achieve these goals, she founded one of the earliest women’s philanthropic organizations and the first American Jewish institutions run by women.
Born on March 4, 1781 in Lancaster, Pa., Gratz was one of 12 children, and was very family-oriented, which introduced in her longings to help struggling families in her community.
As an adult, Gratz was respected in Philadelphia because of her talents as a writer and poet.
However, Gratz preferred to use her skills to help others rather than seek fame.
In 1801, Gratz worked with her mother, sister and 21 other women to establish the Female Association for the Relief of Women and Children in Reduced Circumstances.
It was the first nonsectarian charitable organization run by women for women,
and she served as secretary for 22 years.
Working with this organization exposed Gratz to the plight of poor widows and orphans in the city, and in 1815 she went on to found the Philadelphia Orphan Society (POS), which sheltered and educated poor orphans until they were old enough to live on their own or be accepted into other families.
In 1819, Gratz founded the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society (FHBS), which provided Philadelphia’s poverty-stricken Jews with food, fuel, clothing and other necessities.
It was the first non-synagogue Jewish women’s organization in North America, and she served as its secretary and fundraiser for nearly 40 years.
Also attuned to the importance of Jewish education in a mainly Christian society, Gratz established the Hebrew Sunday School in 1838, and served as its superintendent for 25 years.
The school was modeled after traditional Christian Sunday School and was the first Jewish institution to give women a public role in the education of Jewish children.
Lastly, with the FHBS in 1855, she opened the Jewish Foster Home, the first Jewish orphanage in America. At age 74, she was elected to be its secretary.
Gratz died on August 27, 1869. Her life was filled with accomplishments driven to aid those in need, and she left an outstanding legacy.
The POS helped thousands of impoverished women and children for many years, and merged with the Jewish Foster Home to create the Philadelphia Association for Jewish Children.
The FHBS and Hebrew Sunday School thrived for 150 years, and in 1986, the school combined with Talmud Torah Schools of Philadelphia, which still provide education to Jewish children.
Until her death, Gratz was well respected by her peers, and her legacy lives on in many forms.
Many still praise her accomplishments, and her character is rumored to be implicated in the heroine in the novel Ivanhoe.
Today, Gratz’s achievements are still celebrated during this month of women’s recognition.
Casey Kockler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.