Rebecca Gratz (b. March 4, 1781, Lancaster, Pennsylvania; d. August 27, 1869, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) was a preeminent Jewish American educator and philanthropist.
Gratz was the seventh of twelve children born to Miriam Simon and Michael. Her mother was the daughter of Joseph Simon (1712-1804), a preeminent Jewish merchant of Lancaster, while her father was descended from a long line of respected rabbis. Miriam and Michael were observant Jews and active members of Philadelphia’s first synagogue, Mikveh Israel.
Learn more about Rebecca Gratz at the Jewish Women's Archive. Gratz was the first Jewish female college student in the United States, attending Franklin College (now Franklin and Marshall College) in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. In 1801, she was elected secretary of the Female Association for the Relief of Women and Children in Reduced Circumstances. In 1815, after seeing the need for an institution for orphans in Philadelphia, she was among those instrumental in founding the Philadelphia Orphan Asylum. Four years later, she was elected secretary to its Board. She continued to hold this office for forty years. Under Gratz' auspices, a Hebrew Sunday-school was started and she became both its superintendent and president, resigning in 1864. Gratz was also one of the founding members of the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society, around November 1819. In 1850, she advocated in The Occident, over the signature A Daughter of Israel, for the foundation of a Jewish foster home. Her advocacy was largely instrumental in the establishment of such a home in 1855. Other organizations that came about due to her efforts were the Fuel Society and the Sewing Society.
Gratz is said to have been the model of Rebecca, the heroine of the novel Ivanhoe by Sir Walter Scott. Scott's attention had been drawn to Gratz's character by Washington Irving, who was a close friend of the Gratz family. The claim has been disputed, but it has also been well sustained in an article entitled The Original of Rebecca in Ivanhoe, which appeared in The Century Magazine, 1882, pp. 679-682.
Though Gratz was considered to be among the more beautiful and educated women in her community, she never married. Among the marriage offers she received was from a gentile whom she loved, but ultimately chose not to marry, on the account of her faith.
Gratz is buried at Mikveh Israel Cemetery in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.