Tag Archives: Orthodox Jews

Jew of the Week: Rebecca Gratz

The Woman Behind Hebrew School

An 1831 Portrait of Rebecca Gratz by Thomas Sully

Rebecca Gratz (1781-1869) was born in Philadelphia, the seventh of twelve children in a religious Jewish home. On her mother’s side, she was the granddaughter of Joseph Simon, a wealthy Sephardic Jew who helped finance the American Revolution. Her father was an immigrant from Germany and came from a long line of rabbis. From a young age, Gratz was interested in literature and academia. She read her father’s entire library, and wrote articles and poetry of her own. At 19, she became a nurse in order to take care of her ailing father. Gratz soon recognized the countless women and children disadvantaged by the American Revolution, and established the Female Association for the Relief of Women and Children in Reduced Circumstances to help them. In 1815, she co-founded the Philadelphia Orphan Asylum and would go on to lead the organization for over 40 years, providing a safe home for hundreds of children. (She similarly helped open orphanages in Lexington, Richmond, and New York.) At the same time, Gratz was very active in her local synagogue, Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel. Hoping to reverse the assimilation of Jews in America, and to provide free education for the poor, she opened up the world’s first Hebrew Sunday School in 1838 with 60 students. It would go on to have 4000 graduates. Gratz served as teacher, curriculum developer, superintendent, and president for nearly 30 years. She helped open new branches in Charleston, Baltimore, and other cities, while founding a teacher’s college to train new educators – all Jewish women. Gratz also co-founded the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society, and the Hebrew Education Society of Philadelphia (alongside former Jew of the Week Isaac Leeser). Her advocacy paved the way for the first Jewish foster home in the New World, which opened in 1855. Gratz was also a prominent defender of traditional Judaism. She fought back against proselytizing Christians, and vehemently opposed the new Reform Jewish movement. She advocated tirelessly for Jews to have equal rights, and inspired American Jews to be proud and open about their faith at a time when non-Christians were still often seen as second-class citizens. Not surprisingly, Gratz was described as “the foremost American Jewess of her day.” At one point, Gratz was called the most beautiful woman in America. Her portrait was painted twice by famous American artist Thomas Sully. Gratz never married; the man she loved was not Jewish, and she refused to marry outside of her faith. When her sister passed away at a young age, she raised her six children. After her own passing, the teacher’s college she co-founded was renamed in her honour, and still runs today as Philadelphia’s popular Gratz College. Rebecca Gratz is the basis for the heroine “Rebecca” in Sir Walter Scott’s classic novel Ivanhoe.

15 Facts About Tzedakah Every Jew Should Know

Why A Lot of Bread in the US Will No Longer be Kosher

The Troubling Epidemic of Unnecessary C-Sections

“Occupied” Territories? The Hebrew Origins of Arab Towns

Chanukah Miracles in the United Arab Emirates

An Exclusive Peek Inside Ben Shapiro’s Very Jewish Bookshelf

Remembering Israeli Musician Yigal Bashan

Words of the Week

A man should eat and drink less than what he can afford, dress in accordance with what he can afford, and honour his wife and children beyond what he can afford.
– Talmud (Chullin 84b)

Jews of the Week: Gabi and Rivki Holtzberg

In Memory of a Holy Couple

Rabbi Gavriel and Rivka Holtzberg

Gavriel Noach Holtzberg (1979-2008) was born in Kiryat Malachi, Israel to a Chabad family, and grew up in Crown Heights, New York. A young prodigy with a prolific memory, Holtzberg had memorized an entire order of Mishnah word-for-word (a total of 681 passages in 88 chapters). He was a two-time champion in Mishnah competitions, and placed second in an international Talmud competition. He studied to be a rabbi and mohel in New York and Argentina, while doing community service through Chabad in Thailand and China. Holtzberg married Rivka Rosenberg (1980-2008) of Afula, Israel in 2002. A year later, the young couple moved to Mumbai, India to open a Chabad House of their own. Mumbai had a Jewish community numbering several thousand, along with countless Israeli tourists. The Holtzbergs provided vital Jewish services, including kosher food, a mikveh, and a place to pray, with Rabbi Gabi shechting his own chickens, officiating at Jewish weddings, and performing brit milahs. The couple would regularly host thirty or more people for meals every Shabbat. They also oversaw the conversion of a number of Indians to Judaism (including former Jew of the Week Sarah Avraham). The Holtzbergs were so popular that by 2006 they had raised enough money to purchase a six-story building known as the Nariman House. This became known as Mumbai’s “Jewish headquarters”, and in addition to being a synagogue and a Chabad House, also provided aid for the poor and ran a drug addiction clinic. During this time, the Holtzbergs suffered the loss of two of their three children who succumbed to Tay-Sachs disease. Then came the worst of tragedies: exactly ten years ago, on the 26th of November, the Holtzbergs’ Chabad House was attacked by Muslim terrorists who had descended upon multiple key targets in Mumbai. The couple was taken hostage, and were murdered the following morning, along with four of their guests. (A total of 164 people were killed in the Mumbai attacks.) It was later revealed that Rivki was five months pregnant. The Holtzbergs’ two-year old son Moshe was saved by his Indian nanny, Sandra Samuel. Five years ago, a new rabbinical couple was sent to Mumbai to continue the holy work of the Holtzbergs, and the Chabad House has now been rebuilt. The centre continues to grow, and now runs a nursery and Jewish school, too. A second Chabad couple is on its way to help. Among other things, the Chabad House is currently working to construct a rooftop memorial for all 164 victims of the attack. Moshe Holtzberg will have his Bar Mitzvah at the House next year.

Moshe Holtzberg: Ten Years Later

The Mumbai Doctor Who Smashed His Idols and Converted to Judaism

Words of the Week

I vow that we will avenge the deaths of Gabi and Rivki. But not with AK-47s, not with grenades and tanks. We will take revenge in a different way. We will add light. We will add good deeds…
– Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky

Chabad’s new Mumbai emissary, Rabbi Kozlovsky, lights the city’s Chanukah menorah.