Rebecca Phillips’s life embodies the overlapping of the mundane and the exceptional: She not only was a mother, but also served as a pioneering leader in Jewish and secular American communal life.
Rebecca Machado Phillips was born in Reading, Pennsylvania, on November 21, 1746. She was the elder of two daughters born to María Caetana (Zipporah) and Rev. David Mendez Machado. Both of her parents were born in Portugal, and their families had been secret Jews in Lisbon for generations.
Her parents settled in New York, where David Machado served as hazan of Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese synagogue. He died a year after Rebecca’s birth, on December 4, 1747. Her mother remarried shortly thereafter to Israel Jacobs, producing Rebecca’s half-sister Rachel. Sixteen-year-old Rebecca Machado was married on November 10, 1762, in Hickory Town, Plymouth Township, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, to Jonas Phillips, a merchant eleven years her senior.
Shortly after their marriage, the couple moved to New York, and by the next autumn, the first of their children was born. The early years of marriage were financially strained, though by the second decade of their marriage, the Phillips family became prosperous. According to Philadelphia tax records of 1781 and 1782, Jonas Phillips, who worked as a merchant during the Revolution, was the second wealthiest Jew of the city. From age seventeen to forty-six, Rebecca Phillips bore twenty-one children. Later Rebecca and Jonas Phillips also demonstrated their philanthropy through the adoption of their orphaned grandchildren, Mordecai Manuel and Judith Noah.
The Phillips family remained in New York until the occupation of that city by the British army in 1774 prompted their move to Philadelphia. Dr. Benjamin Rush’s letter to his wife, describing the marriage ceremony of eighteen-year old Rachel, the fifth child of Jonas and Rebecca, is the only surviving account of an eighteenth-century Jewish wedding.
In 1782, Phillips and Grace Nathan undertook to raise and collect funds for the purchase of ritual objects for the newly founded Ritual bathMikveh Israel synagogue of Philadelphia. In 1801, Phillips was one of the founding members of the Female Association for the Relief of Women and Children in Reduced Circumstances, an organization dedicated to assisting yellow fever victims in Baltimore, supporting a soup house for the poor, and generally providing food and clothing to indigent women and children. Phillips’s philanthropy is also evident in her bequest of a large scroll of the Book of Esther, the megilla from which the hazan at Congregation Shearith Israel has traditionally read.
In 1820, at age seventy-four, Rebecca Phillips served as “first directress” and one of thirteen managers on the board of the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society of Philadelphia. The society, founded in 1819 to assist the Jewish indigent, was the first Jewish charitable society in America not associated with a synagogue. Phillips’s responsibilities are delineated in the Society’s constitution: “The first Directress shall preside at the meetings of the Board of Managers, preserve order, appoint committees, call special meetings, and give the casting vote in questions where the board are equally divided.”
The society held two general meetings yearly, while managers met once every two weeks during the winter and more frequently if needed. In 1820, Phillips paid the society an annual subscription of three dollars (two dollars annually was required for membership). The last record of Phillips’s public involvement dates to 1825, when she donated thirty dollars to Mikveh Israel’s Building Committee.
Jonas Phillips died in 1803. Rebecca spent the last twenty-eight years of her life as a widow. The engraving on the tomb of Jonas Phillips in the burial grounds of Shearith Israel reads: “Jonas Phillips, Merchant / son of Aaron Uriah Phillips / and husband of Rebecca Mendez Machado.” According to an unconfirmed source, the tombstone had originally depicted Rebecca seated at her late husband’s grave, accompanied by a small child.
Rebecca Phillips died at age eighty-five on June 25, 1831, in Philadelphia and is buried in the Mikveh Israel Cemetery of that city.
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Ben-Ur, Aviva. "Rebecca Machado Phillips." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 27 February 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on May 27, 2019) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/phillips-rebecca-machado>.