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Rebecca in History


Rebecca Gratz was born on March 4, 1781, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She was the seventh of twelve children born to Miriam Simon and Michael Gratz. Her mother was the daughter of Joseph Simon, a preeminent Jewish merchant of Lancaster. Michael, who was descended from a long line of respected rabbis, and Miriam were observant Jews and active members of Philadelphia's first synagogue, Mikveh Israel.

Through her philanthropic work, Gratz was able to lend her voice to the creation of a number of education and social organizations. Gratz established Jewish institutions that gave women independent, public, and leadership roles in philanthropy and in religious education for the first time in Jewish history. In 1838, she led in founding the Hebrew Sunday School Society, giving Jewish women a distinct and public role in teaching religion for the first time. This laid the foundation for all Jewish congregational education in North America.

Connection to Gratz College

Gratz College bears the name of a storied Jewish family, whose rich history is interwoven with that of Philadelphia and, indeed, the entire United States. The significance of the Gratz name extends beyond the college walls, back to the time of the American Revolution. The Gratz family history is one of patriotism, economic success, philanthropy and support for Jewish education.

Rebecca Gratz was perhaps the most prominent and inspirational member of the family. In 1838, Rebecca created the Hebrew Sunday School Society in Philadelphia, which became the launch pad for all Jewish congregational education in North America. She was also profoundly concerned with the social issues of her day. Rebecca was instrumental in the creation of the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society, a Jewish foster home, the Fuel Society, the Sewing Society and more. With so many accomplishments to her name, it is not hard to understand why Rebecca Gratz is rumored to have been the model of Rebecca, the heroine in Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. 

Undoubtedly inspired by Rebecca, her brother Hyman joined with the Hebrew Education Society of Philadelphia to fund a teachers’ college of Jewish education. Formally founded in 1895 as the first independent college of Jewish studies in North America, Gratz College continues the mission of the Gratz family today, with a commitment to quality education and Jewish community.


This is a list of publications on Rebecca Gratz. It will be updated as needed.

  • Ashton, Dianne. Rebecca Gratz: Women’s Judaism in Antebellum America (1997).
  • Ashton, Dianne. “Souls Have No Sex: Philadelphia Jewish Women and the American Challenge.” In When Philadelphia Was the Capital of Jewish America, edited by Murray Friedman (1993).
  • Beerman, Leonard I. “An Analysis of the Foremost Jewess of the Nineteenth Century as Reflected in Hitherto Unpublished Source Materials.” Ord. thesis, Hebrew Union College (1949).
  • Bodek, Evelyn. “Making Do: Jewish Women and Philanthropy.” In Jewish Life in Philadelphia, 1830–1940, edited by Murray Friedman (1983).
  • Braude, Ann. “The Jewish Woman’s Encounter with American Culture.” In Women and Religion in America, Vol. 1 (1981).
  • Byars, William V., ed. B. and M. Gratz, Merchants in Philadelphia, 1754–1798 (1916).
  • Cohen, Mary M. An Old Philadelphia Cemetery: The Resting Place of Rebecca Gratz (1920).
  • Jacobs, Joseph. “The Original of Scott’s Rebecca.” Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society 22 (1914): 53–60.
  • Mordecai, Sarah. Recollections of My Aunt (1893).
  • Osterweiss, Rollin G. Rebecca Gratz: A Study in Charm (1935).
  • Philipson, David, ed. The Letters of Rebecca Gratz (1929).
  • Rosenbloom, Joseph, “And She Had Compassion: The Life and Times of Rebecca Gratz.” Ph.D. diss., Hebrew Union College (1957), and “Rebecca Gratz and the Jewish Sunday School Movement in Philadelphia.” Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society 47, no. 2 (1958): 71–75, and “Some Conclusions About Rebecca Gratz.” In Essays in American Jewish History (1958).
  • Van Renssalaer, Gratz. “The Original of Rebecca in Ivanhoe.” Century Magazine (September 1882).