Student Testimonial Detail

Deborah Lewis

When I transferred to UC Irvine two years ago, I knew along with majoring in English that I also wanted to minor in Jewish Studies. The program would not only fulfill my desire to learn Hebrew and to learn more about Judaism, but it also aided in the construction of my Honors thesis. Both the Jewish Studies program and the Humanities Honors Program enabled me to accomplish a goal that I have had since I was very young: to learn more about my family’s history.

When my journey began, the only knowledge I had of my great great grandmother was that she brought a locket with her when she immigrated to America and that she died very young leaving her husband to admit their four children into an orphanage. With the grants I was awarded for my project, I was able to research in the Philadelphia Jewish Archives at Temple University and interview my great Aunt Esther, the eldest member of my family. Both the archives and my great aunt’s memories revealed an orphanage she and her siblings grew up in, showing me the true heart of my paper. This orphanage, located in Philadelphia, was also known as America’s first Jewish orphanage founded in 1855 by Jewish philanthropist Rebecca Gratz. With the orphanage’s records and my aunt’s memories, I analyzed the ideals and the realities of institutional life and found that it was not as Dickensian as one would think. My paper sought to understand the orphanage’s place in the history of childcare during this time period, how it fit in American Jewish history, and how it was a reflection of the Jewish community of Philadelphia.