The Fruits of Her Hands: Jewish Women and Social Welfare, 1819-1920
Introduction Religion Orphans Health Care Settlements Music
"She saw the young of her people growing up in ignorance of their faith," wrote Laura Mordecai of her aunt Rebecca Gratz, "so she conceived and executed the idea of a 'Sunday School' to be held in some room where the children would assemble to hear the word of God, to learn his commandments, and receive instruction in the religion of Israel." Deeply involved in philanthropic and charitable work, Gratz and the women of Mikveh Israel had founded the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society in 1819. She used the Society as an umbrella organization for the foundation of the Hebrew Sunday School in 1838. The School provided free, religious education in English to children, regardless of synagogue affiliation. At a time when the standard avenue for religious training came from private tutors preparing boys for Bar Mitzvah, the Hebrew Sunday School opened religious education to girls and encouraged its female graduates to return as instructors.
Hebrew Sunday School Society Graduation, circa 1916
Ellen Phillips, Louisa Hart, Sim'ha Peixotto, and Rachel Peixotto Pyke assisted Rebecca Gratz, who served both as the initial superintendent and the secretary. The women taught classes, developed curriculum, and selected school sites. The lack of religious teaching materials forced Sim'ha Peixotto to write Elementary Introduction to the Scriptures, and her sister Rachel Peixotto Pyke to pen Scriptural Questions. Students ranged in age from kindergarteners to teenagers. By 1858, increased enrollment allowed the Sunday School to become an independent organization and change its name to the Hebrew Sunday School Society.
In 1876, the Hebrew Sunday School Society combined vocational training with its religious instruction. The "Sewing Schools" provided young Jewish girls with job skills. The Rebecca Gratz Sewing School orignially opened on April 23rd, 1876 at Tenth and South Streets, with eight teachers and fifty-three students. The Louisa Hart Sewing School followed in 1880 in the Nothern section of the city. By 1912, enrollment in the Hebrew Sunday School Society reached 4,000 students, requiring the establishment of several branches citywide.