The interior of the Cherry Street synagogue of Philadelphia’s Congregation Mikveh Israel, dedicated January 21, 1825, is pictured in this bookplate of Rabbi Leon H. Elmaleh, who served Mikveh Israel as rabbi from 1898 to 1927. In this interior view, first published in 1845, women occupy a prominent position in the balcony. A contemporary description states that “the galleries are semi-circular, extending around the north and south of the building, and are supported by the columns which extend to the dome.”
While excluded from full participation in services, the women of Congregation Mikveh Israel were actively involved in educational and philanthropic activities. Chief among these was the founding of the first Jewish Sunday school in America on March 4, 1838, “instituted at a meeting of Jewish ladies, held February 4th, 1838, at which it was ‘Resolved, that a Sunday School be established under the direction of the Board (Female Hebrew Benevolent Society) and teachers appointed among the young ladies of the Congregation (Mickveh Israel).’” Rebecca Gratz (1781–1869), the school’s chief organizer, was also instrumental in the work of the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society and the Jewish Foster Home and Orphan Asylum, founded in 1855 at a meeting at the Cherry Street synagogue. The Sewing Society, in which Gratz and other women met to sew garments for the needy, also convened there. Though the Sunday school was founded at Mikveh Israel, classes were never held in the synagogue, despite the congregation’s offer of rooms for that purpose. Gratz felt that the Cherry Street location was too far from the poorer Jewish neighborhoods of Philadelphia and, wanting the school to benefit all classes of children in the city, she located the school elsewhere.