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This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the Temple University Libraries Special Collections Research Center. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.
Overview and metadata sections
In 1838, Rebecca Gratz (a Jewish philanthropist in Philadelphia), along with the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society, founded a Sunday School in Philadelphia that was open to all Jewish children regardless of parental financial standing or synagogue affiliation. Founded in 1819, the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society was the first Jewish charitable organization in Philadelphia, and the first such organization in the United States to offer free basic Jewish religious education. The first day of Sunday School saw approximately 50 children in attendance. In the same year, attendance had increased to 80 students, a number which represented nearly 90 percent of the Jewish children in Philadelphia at the time.
Prior to the Sunday School’s opening, Rabbi Isaac Leeser (of Congregation Mikveh Israel) issued an urgent call for an effective educational system which would enable the Jewish community to address concerns of apathy, ignorance, and the Reform Movement (which renounced Zion and diminished the importance of ritual). This call was answered by Louisa B. Hart, Ellen Philips, Simha C. Peixotto, and Rebecca Gratz. Gratz was also moved to open the Sunday School because of her conviction that American Jews would gain the respect of the larger Christian community by being knowledgeable, observant, and pious within their own religion. Rabbi Leeser remained the school’s mentor until his death in 1868, and his successor, Rabbi Sabato Morais, provided guidance and visited the school every week for 46 years.
Throughout its years of operation, the Sunday School changed locations often, renting different classrooms around the city. It was operated by the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society until 1858 when it was incorporated as the Hebrew Sunday School Society (HSSS). Rebecca Gratz served as president of the organization until she was 80 years of age. Originally, the HSSS was almost exclusively administered by Congregation Mikveh Israel members.
In April 1876, HSSS opened a sewing school, which gave religious instruction along with sewing lessons to Jewish girls, and was named for Rebecca Gratz. The sewing school was founded to respond to missionary activities of Christian missions in the area.
A Jewish teachers’ association was formed by the superintendents and teachers of HSSS in 1878. It was most likely the first organization of its kind in the country. The association was formed for fundraising purposes and to capitalize on available resources in the community.
During the 1880s, a sharp rise in enrollment was caused mainly by immigration of Jews from Eastern Europe. Centers for vocational training, as well as classes in Americanization, were needed. The Society responded to this call by instituting such classes all over the city in English, bookkeeping, stenography, telegraphy, millinery, cigar making, plumbing, and sewing and dressmaking. The classes were in operation from the 1880s to the 1930s. Vacation bible schools were formed in 1892 and appealed to children by combining religious instruction with arts and crafts and games. Facilities of the HSSS became so crowded by the 1880s that efforts were made to raise funds for a building. The Hebrew Education Society built and moved into a new headquarters in 1892. The building, Touro Hall, was similar to a community center and housed one of the earliest indoor swimming pools. The HSSS contributed a large part of the building fund for a perpetual rental agreement.
An Alumni Association was started in 1896. A major achievement of the association was the publication of a monthly educational magazine called The Hebrew Watchword, devoted to the interests of HSSS and to the promotion of Jewish learning in general. The magazine was edited by Rabbi Morais.
Enrollment in the School continually grew until 1927, when over 10,000 students participated in the program. However, as the number of synagogue-operated Sunday Schools increased, the number of HSSS students decreased. Consequently, the HSSS methods were modified to fulfill its goals, and it began to provide financial aid and to support Sunday Schools operated by synagogues.
The HSSS continued to provide educational opportunities for children into the 20th century. Elementary classes for children who were not enrolled in other religious schools were held in several locations throughout the city. In 1915, a high school program was developed which served all teenagers in the community who wanted to continue their Jewish education, including those affiliated with synagogues. Leadership training in group dynamics and recreational skills, preparation for teaching positions, camp counseling, and club work were offered. Other programs sponsored by the HSSS included classes for wayward girls, girl scout troops, cub packs, and religious education for prison inmates.
A number of programs were established by the HSSS for providing religious instruction for gifted children and children with disabilities. In 1913, classes for the Jewish deaf were begun at Mt. Airy School; soon thereafter these classes were established as the Overbrook School for the Blind. In 1964, the HSSS began a program at the Elwyn School for the Mentally Retarded in Media. In response to the community’s needs, services were also provided for the following institutions: Woods School in Langhorne; Pathway School in Norristown; Downtown Children’s Center; and the Samuel Paley Day Care Center.
In 1989, the Federation of Jewish Agencies of Greater Philadelphia established a committee to evaluate supplementary education in Philadelphia. One of the committee’s recommendations was to consolidate the HSSS with the United Hebrew Schools and Yeshivas into a unified school system. In 1993, the two school systems were merged into the Community Hebrew Schools of Greater Philadelphia.
The Hebrew Sunday School Society served as a model for the establishment of other Jewish Sunday Schools in the United States; their founders sought guidance and direction from Gratz and her co-workers. Gratz’s model continues “to provide the basic structure of supplemental Jewish education in the United States.”
Jewish Encyclopedia. (1906). Philadelphia. Retrieved from http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/12093-philadelphia
Jewish Women’s Archive. (n.d.). This week in history: Rebecca Gratz founds first Jewish Sunday School. Retrieved from http://jwa.org/thisweek/feb/04/1838/rebecca-gratz
Jspace. (2013, May 21). Rebecca Gratz, founder of American Hebrew School. Retrieved from http://www.jspace.com/news/articles/rebecca-gratz-founder-of-american-hebrew-school/14076
The Hebrew Sunday School Society (HSSS) records house the organizational records of HSSS. This collection, which dates from 1802 to 2002, with bulk dates from 1888 to 1980, consists of minutes, reports, correspondence, budgets and financial statements, staff and student lists, event programs, clippings, books and research materials, photographs, lantern slides, pins, plaques, and other memorabilia. These records and materials document the history and evolution of HSSS, from carefully handwritten administrative documents and financial ledgers to photographs of graduation ceremonies and religious festivals, and they evidence an organization concerned with the betterment of Jewish children through religious education, including those with special needs. The collection is a unique and rich example of the growth and establishment of the first Hebrew Sunday schools that existed outside of any synagogue, with records that provide a look into how decisions were made over the course of the Society’s existence regarding what and how to teach, as well as a look into Jewish life in Philadelphia.
The collection is arranged into seven series: “I. Administrative records, 1838-2002,” “II. Financial records, 1859-1993,” “III. Programs and events, 1873-1993,” “IV. School records, 1874-1990,” “V. Subject files and books, 1802-1988,” “VI. Photographs, 1916-1992,” and “VII. Memorabilia, 1862-1988.”
The “I. Administrative records” series is arranged chronologically and dates from 1838 to 2002, with the bulk of the records dating from 1900 to 1980. This series includes records relating to the governing of the Hebrew Sunday School Society and ongoing work needed to continue providing educational programs in and around Philadelphia. Included here are the constitution and by-laws of the society, along with petitions for constitutional amendments; minutes and reports of the Board of Managers, Executive Director, and various committees; journals and other writings; leases and agreements for teaching spaces; records and correspondence regarding related organizations, including the Allied Jewish Appeal, the Federation of Jewish Agencies, the Jewish Book Council, the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Jewish Education Committee, and others; correspondence of Society administrators; and an assortment of press releases, studies, publicity materials, clippings, and various lists. Records in this series highlight the decisions made by HSSS and the efforts involved in creating and maintaining Sunday School centers.
The “II. Financial records” series is arranged chronologically and dates from 1859 to 1993, with the bulk of the records dating from 1920 to 1980. The records include items that document the accounts, investments, and expenses of the Hebrew Sunday School Society. These records include ledger books, budgets, reports, financial statements, tax documents, sales inventories, reports for the Allied Jewish Appeal, donations and tuition receipts, and some related correspondence. The files demonstrate the various ways in which HSSS continued to provide for the financial solvency of the Sunday schools.
The “III. Programs and events” series is arranged alphabetically by program or event and then chronologically within each section. These records date from 1873 to 1993, with the bulk of the records dating from 1913 to 1975. Included in this series are records relating to various events including annual Anniversary celebrations (which include an annual luncheon and the graduation exercises), the Evelyn A. Margolis Memorial Lecture Series, various school programs, exhibitions, and staff conferences. Records for events generally consist of programs and invitations, correspondence and notes, guest and attendance lists, press releases and other publicity materials, committee lists and minutes, speeches, clippings, and donation records. Additionally, Anniversary celebration records frequently include lists of graduates and scholarship award winners, Award Fund donation forms, and notices to parents. Some reel-to-reel tape recordings of lectures and other events are also included in this series.
The “IV. School records” series is arranged chronologically and dates from 1874 to 1990, with the bulk of the records dating from 1911 to 1984. The records consist of a variety of organization materials, including teacher evaluations and salaries, staff and student lists, notices to principals and teachers, correspondence, reports, and surveys regarding enrollment and parental feedback, which provide valuable information about how the schools were run, how they dealt with falling enrollment, issues related to parents, establishment of school locations, and valued curriculum. Song sheets, school newsletters for students and parents, worksheets and exams, lesson plans, and play scripts evidence how students were being taught and what lessons and events one could find in the schools each year. Some of these records, such as attendance reports, come from the individual schools, but much of the documentation is not specified as belonging to any one location. There is some overlap with Series “I. Administrative records,” such as Board of Managers minutes, but these were left to preserve the original order of the records. Records in this series are of interest to researchers looking for examples of curricula being taught to Hebrew school students in Philadelphia. There are some visually interesting items such as children’s artwork, a collection of projections for a student presentation called “The Jewish Bicentennial,” a school bell, and lantern slides, mostly depicting scenes from Bible stories, as well as notable figures in history, such as Abraham Lincoln.
The “V. Subject files and books” series is arranged chronologically and dates from 1802 to 1988, with the bulk of the records dating from 1864 to 1963. The series includes a collection of books and research files, mostly regarding the Jewish faith, as well as some that were published or written by Hebrew Sunday School Society members. These books and research files may have been used to enhance the education of students of the Sunday schools, as there are prayer books, books geared specifically towards instruction, curriculum guides from other organizations, children’s bibles, and even material in Braille and lists of Braille publications. There is a book included, identified as a Hebrew prayer book for fast days, that was owned and used by Rebecca Gratz, as well as “Flowers of the Holy Land,” a visually stunning book bound in wood and containing pressed flowers, which would be perfect for exhibition. Some of these books are in Hebrew and have not had their titles or contents translated. One text, “Recollections of my Aunt, Rebecca Gratz,” was written by Sarah Ann Hayes Mordecai, a niece, and provides an account of Rebecca Gratz and her life. Researchers will find source texts for instruction in this series.
The “VI. Photographs” series is arranged chronologically and dates from 1916 to 1992, with the bulk of the records dating from 1938 to 1969. The records include images of many of the events that took place at the schools, such as anniversary celebrations and graduations, summer training school and activities, annual luncheons, schools and their students, and board members, such as Executive Director Jennie Sichel and Mrs. Evelyn Margolis. Some of these photographs have annotations written on the back that may be helpful to researchers, but are not always reflected in the folder titles. Additionally, some of the unidentified photographs may include duplicates of identified photographs.
The “VII. Memorabilia” series is arranged chronologically and dates from 1862 to 1988, with bulk dates from 1920 to 1940. The materials include items created for and by the Society, including anniversary pins, scrapbooks of clippings documenting the Society’s history, broadsides and banners, an embosser stamp with the HSSS seal, and certificates. There are also some notable historical artifacts, such as an embroidered bookmark created by Rebecca Gratz, a “testimonial plaque” given to Rebecca Gratz by teachers and students in 1862, and a pillow made by a student for the 150th Anniversary. Some of the items had previously been removed for exhibition, and some folders include exhibit cards as a result. The realia included in this series provides tactile and visually exciting material to add to the rich documentation included in the other series.
This collection is unique in that it evidences the desire to cultivate high quality Jewish education in the city of Philadelphia and the surrounding areas. The organization was founded with the intention that all Jewish children could attend classes, regardless of financial standing or synagogue affiliation. The Society expanded their services over time to include more children in more locations, with a special focus on children with mental and physical disabilities. Researchers interested in the subjects of religious instruction, and Jewish history in the Philadelphia region will find rich information here. Additionally, those looking for information on childhood education, community-based education, and special education will also find valuable resources within this collection.
The processing of this collection was made possible through generous funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, administered through the Council on Library and Information Resources’ “Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives” Project.
This collection was minimally processed in 2013-2014, as part of an experimental project conducted under the auspices of the Philadelphia Area Consortium of Special Collections Libraries to help eliminate processing backlog in Philadelphia repositories. A minimally processed collection is one processed at a less intensive rate than traditionally thought necessary to make a collection ready for use by researchers. When citing sources from this collection, researchers are advised to defer to folder titles provided in the finding aid rather than those provided on the physical folder.
Employing processing strategies outlined in Mark Greene's and Dennis Meissner's 2005 article "More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Processing Approaches to Deal With Late 20th-Century Collections," the project team tested the limits of minimal processing on collections of all types and ages in 16 Philadelphia area repositories. A primary goal of the project, the team processed at an average rate of 4 hours per linear foot of records, a fraction of the time ordinarily reserved for the arrangement and description of collections. Among other time saving strategies, the project team did not extensively review the content of the collections or complete any preservation work.
- Temple University Libraries Special Collections Research Center
- Finding Aid Author
- Finding aid prepared by Christiana Dobrzynski Grippe, Annalise Berdini, and Steven Duckworth.
- Finding Aid Date
- 2014 January 27
- The creation of the electronic guide for this collection was made possible through generous funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, administered through the Council on Library and Information Resources’ “Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives” Project.
- Access Restrictions
This collection is open for research use.
- Use Restrictions
Copyright restrictions may apply. Please contact the Archives with requests for copying and for authorization to publish, quote or reproduce the material.