Monday, July 27, 2009

Rebecca Compared to the Biblical Deborah

Rebecca Gratz founded the first Hebrew Sunday School Society in America in 1838. Based on the Protestant template, her school offered the children of Philadelphia's Jewish community age-appropriate lessons about their religion. The school broke with Jewish tradition in that it was run and taught by women.

In 1840, a Dr. Salomon visited her classroom. He was a learned man who had lectured in his native language at the local German synagogue, but he did not speak English. However, he brought Rebecca a Bible, pointed out a verse he wanted her to read and offered her his hand. The verse was Judges 5:7. It is from the song of Deborah, the woman judge who brought leadership and authority to the Israelites during a time of social disorder. In the King James version of the Bible (the English translation which Rebecca would have used), it reads: "The inhabitants of the villages ceased, they ceased in Israel until that I Deborah arose, that I arose a mother in Israel."

American Jews faced less dire problems than the Israelites of Deborah's time, but there were real tensions. In Philadelphia a group of disaffected congregants had recently left Rebecca's synagogue Mikveh Israel to help form a new one. In the South, many of the old Jewish families hoped to keep their faith alive by embracing a reformed Judaism, which would retain the religion's ethical base but jettison the practices and observances they found onerous. Meanwhile, Evangelical Christians were actively seeking to convert Jews. It must have seemed to Dr. Salomon that Rebecca Gratz alone represented one of the few unifying forces of the time endeavoring to strengthen and nurture the children of Israel.

(This post is based on a letter, dated March 29, 1841, from Rebecca Gratz to her niece Miriam Cohen. It is from Miriam Gratz Moses Cohen collection No. 02639, Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.)

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