Primary Sources & Lesson Plans
The 1830s were a time of upheaval in the established cities of the United States. As the first phases of industrialization caused economic and social dislocation, a desire to help the unfortunate pervaded much of genteel society. The increased demand for philanthropic work provided opportunities for middle-class women to widen their sphere of action, extending their domestic roles as caregivers to more public charity efforts. Although some of this philanthropy was non-sectarian, Jews feared that the missionary zeal of their Christian counterparts who were experiencing the religious revivalism of the Second Great Awakening would lead them to try to use material assistance to attract converts.
The Female Hebrew Benevolent Society of Philadelphia, founded in 1819, was able to address these concerns. The Society provided the citys impoverished Jews with food, clothing, fuel, and other necessities, seeking to protect the poor without encouraging pauperism. The first non-synagogue Jewish women's organization in North America, it did not make religion the focus of its mission. Recipients were not required to attend services or belong to a congregation. Gratz served as the organization's secretary for nearly forty years, where among other duties, she wrote reports such as the one reproduced here.
For more information on the Society and the life of Rebecca Gratz, go to JWAs Women of Valor exhibit.
1. How does Gratz describe the poor? Why do you think she speaks about them in this way?
2. How does Gratz present the efforts and obligations of Jewish women?
3. What emphasis does Gratz place on education? What values does this emphasis reflect?
4. Is this report merely an account of the goals of the society? How is it an effective fundraising mechanism?
5. Think about an organization that helps the poor today. What does it have in common with the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society?
How to Cite This Page