Happy Birthday, Hebrew School

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Today marks the 172nd anniversary of the First Hebrew Sunday School in the United States, founded in 1838 in Philadelphia.  You can read about it at JWA's This Week in History. It was an audacious undertaking which required the special talents of an unusual woman.

Rebecca Gratz (1781-1869) was born in Philadelphia at a time when Jews were socially assimilated.  She and her siblings, children of a wealthy family, enjoyed all the society pastimes of privileged youth.  But at the age of twenty, Rebecca was already concerned for the less fortunate.  In 1801, she joined the new Female Association, the first nonsectarian women's charity in the city.  She would serve for more than forty years as secretary of both the Philadelphia Orphan Society and the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society.  She also founded  Philadelphia's Jewish Foster Home.

Beyond her good works, Rebecca had the aura of romance about her.  A beautiful young woman, she had renounced the man she loved for religious reasons (he was Presbyterian) and remained single all her life.  In 1821, when the immensely popular novel Ivanhoe by Walter Scott reached America, many people thought they saw Rebecca Gratz in the depiction of everyone's favorite character, the beautiful Jewess Rebecca.  (There is no documentation to prove this, but Rebecca's good friend Washington Irving did visit with Scott for several days in 1817, about 18 months before he wrote Ivanhoe.)  Whether the resemblance was real or coincidental is not important:  everyone thought it was true and it made Rebecca a celebrity.  She became that rarest of all beings:  a glamorous woman with moral authority.  With this heady charisma, undeniable experience in organizing and fundraising, plus the approbation of her rabbi Isaac Leeser who shared her educational concerns, she was able in 1838 to make the Hebrew Sunday School Society a reality.

Rebecca's interest in Jewish education stemmed from her memory of what a mystery her religion had been to her in childhood.  She wanted to sweep away childish ignorance and see "the next generation of Jew[ish] children...able to give a reason for their faith."  She was especially able to help them because during her years of caring for her many nieces and nephews (and raising seven of them), she observed the children carefully and drew some astute conclusions about their cognitive development.

For instance, at a meeting of the directors of the Orphan Asylum, during a heated debate about the text for a (Protestant) religious service for the children, Rebecca saw a problem no one else discerned:  children before a certain age could not grasp the abstractions the women were arguing about.  As Rebecca put it, young children needed a picture to link to a word to make it meaningful.  This did not seem to be apparent to most adults around her, and so her insights into children's development led to views on education which are surprisingly modern at a time when most teachers considered the hickory stick their most important resource to encourage learning.

Rebecca would not have been familiar with terms like "child-centered" or "age-appropriate language," but her educational methods could be described in those words.  The hallmark of her teaching was the explanation -- in a vocabulary and with images children could readily understand -- which accompanied the reading of Scripture and other texts.  She did not want her pupils parroting things they did not understand; she was trying to engage their minds.

Rebecca Gratz conveyed her educational principles to her admiring young teachers and watched over her endeavor as superintendent of the school for more than two decades. Her long experience in charitable organizations made her realistic about what human institutions could accomplish, but in her eighties she was able to tell her faculty that for her the Hebrew Sunday School was the "crown of life."  The school was her lasting contribution, but also to be cherished is her vision of how religion should be taught.

Susan Sklaroff is a docent at the Rosenbach Museum and Library who blogs under the name of Claire Salisbury at Rebecca Gratz & 19th-Century America.

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