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Rebecca Gratz founds first Jewish Sunday School

February 4, 1838

Drawing upon an established network of Jewish women communal workers in Philadelphia, Rebecca Gratz presided over the establishment of the first Jewish Sunday School on February 4, 1838.

Taking its cue from the Christian Sunday School movement, the Philadelphia Hebrew Sunday School Society offered a new and long-lived model of Jewish education. While Gratz prized the religious freedom available to Jews in the United States, she also believed that American Jews could best earn the respect of the Christian majority by being knowledgeable and observant. To that end, the Hebrew Sunday School offered weekly classes free of charge to both boys and girls from early childhood to the early teens.

In addition to educating Philadelphia's Jewish youth, the Hebrew Sunday School provided Jewish women with an unprecedented role in the public education of Jewish children. Staffed by local women, the school offered its own teacher training program and selected its faculty from among its own female graduates. Gratz herself served as the School's superintendent for more than a quarter-century. Philadelphia's most prominent male Jewish leader, Isaac Leeser, publicized the program in his national Jewish periodical and compiled educational textbooks for use in its classes.

Gratz's school was a success almost from the beginning. Over time, it opened branches across Philadelphia; by the end of the nineteenth century, the Hebrew Sunday School had served over 4,000 students. Even more importantly, the Philadelphia school offered a model to women in other cities. Similar schools were soon created in New York; Augusta, Georgia; Savannah; Richmond; Charleston; Baltimore and elsewhere. All of these schools sought guidance from Gratz and her co-workers. Moreover, Sunday School education, as introduced in Philadelphia in 1838, has continued, to this day, to provide the basic structure of supplemental Jewish education in the United States.

To learn more about Rebecca Gratz, visit Women of Valor or Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia.

Sources:Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 547-550; Dianne Ashton, Rebecca Gratz: Women and Judaism in Antebellum America (1997); Karla Goldman, Beyond the Synagogue Gallery: Finding a Place for Women in American Judaism (2000), pp. 61-63.

Gratz, Rebbeca - still image [media]
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Born into privilege in Philadelphia shortly after American independence, Rebecca Gratz was responsible for establishing and running a number of Jewish organizations in her native city, including the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society (1819) and the Hebrew Sunday School (1838). A strong believer in American religious freedom, she nonetheless felt that Jews had a responsibility to be knowledgeable about their own faith.

Institution: American Jewish Historical Society

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Rebecca Gratz founds first Jewish Sunday School." (Viewed on July 24, 2014) <http://jwa.org/thisweek/feb/04/1838/rebecca-gratz>.

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