Rebecca Gratz stepped into Gratz College in Melrose Park for the very first time on June 13.
This Rebecca Gratz, born in 1990, bears little resemblance to her great-great-great-aunt, also Rebecca Gratz, who was the inspiration behind the college. But the two share more than just a name.
Until seven months ago, Gratz, who lives in Louisville, Kentucky, had little idea that her namesake had a storied legacy in Philadelphia’s Jewish community. On a trip to Philadelphia, where Gratz attended a Rebecca Gratz Tea Party event at the college and got a tour of The Rosenbach museum to learn about her family history, Gratz found and deepened those family connections.
“I feel much more connected to her, and I feel more connected to my roots,” she said.
But those connections were never guaranteed. Gratz was born in Lexington, Kentucky, where Benjamin Gratz, brother of the older Rebecca Gratz, moved and became a businessman, lawyer and father. She grew up visiting Gratz Park, named for Benjamin, her great-great-grandfather, as well as seeing street signs with her last name to honor her grandfather, an architect.
Those landmarks were Gratz’s strongest tethers to her family.
For her entire life, Gratz’s parents struggled with severe illness and, by 16, Gratz was living independently. In her 20s, Gratz struggled with substance use disorder and spent time in rehab.
About four years ago, in outpatient treatment, Gratz and some friends spent Thanksgiving at the downtown public library in Louisville. Gratz was used to spending holidays at the library or at the shelter, where she would take care of the women staying there.
Deep in the history section, Gratz cracked a joke to her friends, dramatically leaning on a bookshelf and resting her hand on a book.
A friend’s eyes widened as she told Gratz to look down. Under her hand was a book of Rebecca Gratz’s letters.
“It was without a doubt a coincidence,” Gratz said. “I have just been thinking about it to this day. It just happened out of nowhere.”
For months, Gratz pored over the letters, almost immediately making the connection between her name and the name of the woman on the cover of the book.
In November, Gratz reached out to Gratz College Executive Assistant to the President Dodi Klimoff wanting to learn more about her family history. She had just completed a MyHeritage DNA test to confirm her relation to the family.
Gratz College was happy to welcome her.
“Rebecca’s visit to Gratz was particularly meaningful because it demonstrates the deep synergies between Gratz College’s historical mission and its contemporary resonance,” Gratz College President Zev Eleff said. “I was moved to see her learn and absorb the legacy of her great aunt, and to take stock of her reaction to a community that has, for more than a century, held Rebecca Gratz as a lodestar and symbolic exemplar.”
The visit had a personal impact on Gratz. Now sober, Gratz is working on becoming a certified peer specialist and has worked in recovery outreach in Louisville. She’s now hoping to pursue a career in user experience in the tech industry. She attributes some of her journey to recovery to her namesake. Instantly, Gratz drew connections between her and the Rebecca Gratz she was reading about. Her namesake was motivated, headstrong at times and eager to make a difference, which resonated with Gratz’s resilience throughout her childhood and her desire to help other women in recovery.
“I went from having no family to finding this book written by someone with my name, who is equally opinionated,” Gratz said.
“It was really important to me to encounter something written by someone who was so educated and so determined,” she added. “It made it easier for me to just feel inspired by that.”
Gratz’s namesake, whom she called “OG RG,” was born in Philadelphia in 1781. Her family was wealthy, having established themselves as shippers and traders for the colonial East Coast and the transatlantic trade of kosher meat, among other goods.
Using her family’s money and influence, Rebecca Gratz established a host of social services, including the Hebrew Sunday School, Female Hebrew Benevolent Society and Philadelphia Orphan Asylum.
“Clearly she believed that it was the responsibility of people of means to give back to their communities with both their time and their money,” said Melissa Klapper, professor of American and women’s history at Rowan University, who spoke at the Rebecca Gratz Tea Party on June 13.
Gratz College has hundreds of letters written by and to Rebecca Gratz in their archives, including numerous correspondence between Rebecca and Benjamin Gratz, who despite a more than 10-year age gap and sharing 10 other siblings, developed a warm relationship, Klapper said. Their lasting letter exchange was perhaps the first iteration of Gratz correspondence from Kentucky to Philadelphia that would be mirrored 200 years later.
Gratz drove back to Louisville last week intending to keep in touch with Gratz College staff and visit Philadelphia again. She described the trip as a “growth spurt,” the continuation of a journey of both personal growth and family connection.
“It is the type of magic that you don’t find unless you’re trying to do something better for yourself,” Gratz said.