Ellen Phillips influenced generations of young Jewish girls and boys in nineteenth-century Philadelphia. One of the founding members of the Hebrew Sunday School Society in 1838, Phillips donated her time, family wealth, and religious convictions to several Jewish and sectarian philanthropic organizations.
Ellen Phillips, born on October 30, 1821, was the tenth of eleven children of Zalegman Phillips, a lawyer and president of Congregation Ritual bathMikveh Israel (1806–1807, 1822–1834), and Arabella Solomans. The Phillipses, one of Philadelphia’s original Jewish families, had established themselves as a part of nineteenth-century Philadelphia’s Jewish elite through their wealth, charitable activities, and association with Congregation Mikveh Israel.
Phillips and rebecca gratz, her contemporary, were deeply influenced by their Jewish heritage. Her desire to preserve and instill the tenets of her religion in the young, especially as the number of Jews entering America from Europe increased, resulted in Phillips, Gratz, Louis B. Hart, and Sim’ha Peixotto establishing the Hebrew Sunday School Society in 1838 under the aegis of the Hebrew Benevolent Society. The school was to provide supplementary religious education to all Jewish children. This was significant because, until that time, girls received no formal training. Phillips served the society from its inception to her death in 1891 as a creator and signer of the Society’s constitution, a teacher, school superintendent (1871–1886), and vice president and manager of the Benevolent Society. Phillips contributed to other charities helping poor and immigrant Jews by making considerable donations to the Jewish Maternity Association, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Young Women’s Union (est. 1885), and the building of Touro Hall, a permanent residence for the Sunday School, in 1891. Consequently, Ellen Phillips’s good works were honored through a memorial bed at the Maternity Association’s home in 1891, and a tablet in the main hall of Touro Hall in the same year.
Ellen Phillips died on August 2, 1891, continuing her philanthropy even in her will. She left donations of over $110,000 to the Jewish organizations named above and to secular organizations such as the American Philosophical Society and the Fairmount Park Art Gallery, to which she donated artwork that she had inherited from her brother, Henry Mayer, a former congressman and president of the board of Fairmount Park Commissioners.
By dedicating her life to preserving and instilling Jewish heritage in the young, Ellen Phillips used her position and faith to educate generations of individuals. At the same time, she occupied a place of authority and social significance within the Jewish community of nineteenth-century Philadelphia. Phillips typified the “elite Jewess” of the antebellum era who, as a privileged woman, dominated the female realm of community service that would eventually be overcome by professionalism and dominated by men by the turn of the century.
Ashton, Dianne. “Souls Have No Sex.” In When Philadelphia Was the Capital of Jewish America, edited by Murray Friedman (1993); Bodek, Evelyn “‘Making Do’: Jewish Women and Philanthropy.” In Jewish Life in Philadelphia, 1830–1940, edited by Murray Friedman (1983); Morais, Henry Samuel. The Jews of Philadelphia: Their history from the Earliest Settlements to the Present Time ... (1894); Phillips, Ellen. Papers. Hebrew Sunday School Society Collection, Rolls 1–4. Jewish American Archives, Balch Institute of Ethnic Studies, Philadelphia; Rezneck, Samuel. The Saga of an American Jewish Family Since the Revolution: A History of the Family of Jonas Phillips (1980); Sussman, Lance. Isaac Leeser and the Making of American Judaism (1995); UJE; Wolf, Simon. The American Jew as Patriot, Soldier, and Citizen (1972).
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Piola, Erika. "Ellen Phillips." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on January 15, 2021) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/phillips-ellen>.