This profile first appeared in Hadassah Magazine and is reprinted with permission of the author.
One day in 1835, Henry Clay, the American statesman, heard that a remarkable Jewish woman named Rebecca Gratz was about to visit his hometown of Lexington, Kentucky.
On the day of her arrival he rode to her brother Benjamin’s home, where she was staying, to invite her to dine with him at Ashland, his country estate.
Clay made sure she entered the dining room at his side and that she sat next to him at the table. Their conversation was the sort that “great men talk,” according to the recollections of Gratz’s niece, Sarah Ann Hays.
What had she done to deserve such an honor?
Redefining Jewish Life
By the close of the Colonial era it was becoming increasingly clear that Old World Jewish communal activity–male leadership geared to a more inward-directed Jewish existence–was inappropriate to life in a young nation born of religious freedom and assimilation. New organizations would be needed to foster Jewish learning, values and philanthropy while helping the growing number of immigrants make the most of the opportunities before them.
Among the most influential visionaries to promote this concept was Rebecca Gratz. She became the founder of the American-style “Hebrew school,” as we know it today, and also developed the prototype for many women’s charitable organizations that have become an integral part of American Jewish life.
And she did so while leading an assimilated life of upper-class refinement. Dianne Ashton, her biographer, observes that Gratz demonstrated that a Jewish woman could be “both fully Jewish and fully American.” And in the process Gratz also showed that there was an important public role for women to play in American Jewish life….
Assimilated but Affiliated
Born in 1781 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, during the Revolutionary War, Gratz was the seventh of 10 children who survived into adulthood. Early on, the family moved to Philadelphia, the booming center of a new nation.