Born into a wealthy Philadelphia family, Richa Gratz became the first Jewish women to attend college in America. After completing her education, she began her career in social work alongside her husband, supporting her synagogue as well as cultural organizations and aid societies. She maintained close relationships with her large family, having five children of her own, and many of her family members were also notable figures in the East Coast Jewish charitable community of the time period.
Richea was born on October 1, 1774, to Miriam (Simon) Gratz, the daughter of a prominent Lancaster fur trader, and Michael Gratz, a leading Philadelphia merchant who hailed from Langendorf, Germany. Her family status granted her the educational opportunity very few women in her day enjoyed, and she made the most of it, studying English as well as classical languages while attending college. She was the second of four daughters and the third of ten children. Her sisters were Frances, Sarah, Rachel, and Rebecca, the latter of whom was the leader of America’s first Jewish Sunday school. Throughout her life she remained close with her large family, seeing sisters, brothers, aunts, and uncles daily and writing weekly to those who had moved away.
In 1787, at the age of thirteen, Gratz became the first Jewish woman to attend college in America when she matriculated with the first class at Franklin College (later Franklin and Marshall College of Lancaster, Pennsylvania).
When she married Samuel Hays of New York, on January 8, 1794, she took her place as one of the leading Jewish women of Philadelphia, balancing her strict religious background with her affluent middle-class one. Gratz was very active in Congregation Ritual bathMikveh Israel, where Hays was a trustee and the Gratz family had been founding members. As a member of one of the city’s prominent families, Gratz was able to use her liberal arts education to the benefit of the community by supporting the cultural and educational life of Philadelphia.
During the first three decades of the nineteenth century, the Hays family contributed to the Philadelphia Library and the Chestnut Street Theater, and also patronized local artists. Cultural events did not take all of Gratz’s time, however, as she made her presence felt in the area of reform and relief work. With her mother and two of her sisters, Gratz was one of eight original members in the Female Association for the Relief of Women and Children in Reduced Circumstances. The organization, founded in 1801, grew to include twenty-three members, about a third of whom were Jewish. Among their efforts, they raised money to provide for a soup kitchen.
As important as her outside activities were, Gratz cherished her close ties with her siblings and invested much time in her own family. She and Hays had five children between 1794 and 1805: Fannie, Isaac, Miriam (Maria), Ellen, and Sara Ann [Hays Mordecai]. They were brought up under the same strict religious tradition she herself had been raised in. Isaac’s career exemplified the fact that Gratz, recalling her early days in college, stressed the importance of education to her children. He received an M.D. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1820 and became a famous scientist, writer, and humanitarian.
Richea Gratz died on November 22, 1858, in Philadelphia. She was laid to rest, according to her wishes, next to her husband on the west side of Philadelphia’s Spruce Street Cemetery in an area known as the Gratz Reservation.
Dubbs, Joseph Henry. History of Franklin and Marshall College (1903).
Gratz, Rebecca. The Letters of Rebecca Gratz. Edited by Dawn Philipson (1975).
Marcus, Jacob. American Jewry, Documents; Eighteenth Century (1959).
Wolf, Edwin. The History of the Jews in Philadelphia from Colonial Times to the Age of Jackson (1957).