Tag Archives: Philadelphia

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

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: the Guggenheims

Meyer Guggenheim, with (top to bottom) Daniel, Solomon, Simon, and Benjamin

Meyer Guggenheim (1828-1905) was born in Switzerland to a traditional Ashkenazi Jewish family. At 19, he set out on his own and journeyed to the United States. After working in various shops in Philadelphia, Guggenheim opened up his own company, importing Swiss embroidery. Business went well, and he soon searched for new opportunities. In 1881, Guggenheim invested $5000 in two Colorado silver mines, and quickly realized their incredible potential. He sold all his other ventures and put all of his money into mining and smelting. With the help of his seven sons, Guggenheim quickly expanded across the US. By 1901, the family controlled the largest metal-processing plants in the US, and also owned mines in Mexico, Bolivia, Chile, and the Congo. In 1922, various disputes led to the Guggenheims being kicked out of their largest company by its own board. Soon, they sold off all of their mines. The family would invest elsewhere, and the fortune vacillated over the decades. In 1999, it ceased to be a strictly family affair with the opening of Guggenheim Partners. Today, the firm has 2300 employees, and controls $260 billion in assets worldwide (including the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team, purchased for a record $2.15 billion in cash).

After the elder Guggenheim’s passing, his son Daniel Guggenheim (1856-1930) took over the business. By 1918, he raised the family fortune to as much as $300 million, making them among the wealthiest people in the world, as well as among the most generous philanthropists. Daniel’s son was a World War I pilot, inspiring Daniel to invest considerably in aviation technology. To this day, the most prestigious prize in aeronautics is the Daniel Guggenheim Medal. Another son, Solomon Guggenheim (1861-1949), was a patron of the arts and an avid collector. He established New York’s world-famous Guggenheim Museum. Meanwhile, Simon Guggenheim (1867-1941) served as a US senator. He established a fund in honour of his deceased son that has granted over 15,000 scholarships to date, totalling over $250 million! His $80,000 donation (equivalent to $2.5 million today) to a Colorado school was, at the time, the largest private grant ever made to a state institution. Benjamin Guggenheim (1865-1912) worked for the family business out of Paris, and in 1912 boarded the Titanic to head back home. When the iceberg hit, he was offered a place among the first women being evacuated, but rejected, saying “No woman shall remain unsaved because I was a coward.” One survivor reported that “after having helped the rescue of women and children, [he] got dressed, a rose at his buttonhole, to die.” His body was never recovered.

Words of the Week

We can easily forgive a child who is afraid of the dark; the real tragedy of life is when men are afraid of the light.
– Plato