A Project in Memory of Dianne Ashton
The Rebecca Gratz Digital Collection is the largest and most accessible repository of the leading female philanthropist in Philadelphia during the nineteenth century. The archive features more than 800 transcribed and searchable letters to and from this important historical figure. Born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania in 1781, Gratz was a leader in education, culture, and social welfare in Philadelphia. A scion of pivotal American Jewish family, Gratz founded or was formative in the establishment of the first Philadelphia Orphan Asylum (1815), Female Hebrew Benevolent Society (1819), Hebrew Sunday School (1838), and Jewish Foster Home (1855). Rebecca Gratz’s indefatigable leadership as a woman—Jewish or otherwise—is a rare and important example in American history. Her reach within the Jewish community extended to a national level. Gratz’s letters represent an important source of information in the areas of American Jewish history, women’s history, and philanthropy. She died in Philadelphia in 1869.
The Rebecca Gratz Digital Collection originated from conversations between the late historian Dianne Ashton (1949-2022) and Zev Eleff, president of Gratz College. Dr. Ashton, professor of World Religions at Rowan University, was a pioneering scholar of American Jewish women (among her other expertise) and the leading biographer of Rebecca Gratz.
Dianne’s focus on women’s history was propelled by her foundational efforts in bringing “lived religion” to the study of American Jewish history. By “lived religion,” Dianne sought to broaden the scope of historical writing, to raise awareness that Jewish life extends far beyond the synagogue: more multidimensional than the versions of prayer books used in those sanctuaries, and less cerebral than the sermons delivered from pulpits. Jewish life and culture can be found in home décor, on bookshelves, and the various offerings delivered by social service agencies.
In Rebecca Gratz, Dianne saw a story of the complexities of Jewish womanhood in the nineteenth century. Dianne’s shared vision for the project was to make Rebecca Gratz’s letters accessible to scholars and students who could draw added meaning from this important historical figure. This searchable and centralized digital platform curates these important historical artifacts and memorializes Dianne’s legacy as a historian and public scholar. The provenance and other metadata are indicated for each entry in this Collection.