Hebrew Sunday School
Rebecca Gratz, 1781 - 1869
"I am gratified in the improvement of a large class of children...it will be a consolation for much lost time—if this late attempt to improve the degenerate portion of a once great people shall lead to some good—and induce wiser and better Jews to take the work in hand."
By the 1830s Gratz had become increasingly concerned about the future of Philadelphia's 750 Jews. In 1835, she urged the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society to address, "that most pressing need— the mental impoverishment of those who are rising to take their places among the thousands of Israel scattered throughout the families of the earth." Her solution was a Jewish educational program modeled on the Christian Sunday Schools which had successfully taught thousands of children all over the United States the fundamentals of reading and Christianity. In 1838, the Society resolved that "a Sunday school be established under the direction of the board, and teachers appointed among young ladies of the congregation." The school opened three weeks later, on Gratz' fifty-seventh birthday, with sixty students enrolled. Gratz became the school's superintendent and served for more than twenty-five years.
She worked tirelessly for the school, personally grading each student's homework assignments and creating materials for the students' use. Rebecca Gratz's grandniece, Miriam Mordecai, later remembered how family members had "helped 'Aunt Becky' paste little slips of paper over objectionable words or sentences" in books published by the Christian American Sunday School Union that the Hebrew Sunday School used. The school was radically different from traditional Jewish education programs; it was coeducational, met only once a week, and lessons were taught in English instead of Hebrew. In addition, the school was run entirely by women and was the first Jewish institution to give women a public role in the education of Jewish children. The model spread quickly and Gratz advised women in Charleston, Savannah, and Baltimore on establishing similar schools in their own communities.
- "I am gratified..." From a letter from Rebecca Gratz to Maria Gist Gratz, February 23, 1840. From Letters of Rebecca Gratz, edited by David Philipson. (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1929).
- "that most pressing..." From a "Report," published by The Female Hebrew Benevolent Society, 1835, Gratz Family Papers, Collection no.72, box 17, p143. Courtesy of The American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, PA.
- "a Sunday school..." From a "Report," published by The Female Hebrew Benevolent Society, 1835, Gratz Family Papers, Collection no.72, box 17, p143. Courtesy of The American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, PA.
- "helped ‘Aunt Becky’..." Mordechai, Sara, Recollections of my Aunt: Rebecca Gratz, 1893. p.7.