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Ellen Phillips (1820-1891)

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Ellen Phillips

This week we remember the Hashcabah of Ellen Phillips, who died on February 2, 1891 (24 Shebat 5651).  Ms. Phillips descended from one of the original families of Mikveh Israel, and a long line of illustrious and important leaders in the Jewish community of Philadelphia.

She was born on October 30, 1820, the tenth of eleven children of Zalegman Phillips and Arabella Solomons.  Nine of the eleven children lived to adulthood, though only three married and had children themselves.  Ellen herself never married, which was the case with most of her cousins, nieces and nephews.

Those of her relatives who did have children, tended to have very large families.  Her father, Zalegman, was one of 21 children of Jonas Phillips and Rebecca Machado.  Her aunt Rachel Phillips married Michael Levy and had 10 children, one of whom was Uriah Phillips Levy, the famous Commodore of the US Navy, noted for helping to end the practice of flogging in the Navy, as well as for buying and restoring Monticello, the former home of President Thomas Jefferson.  Her uncle Naphtali Phillips, who lived to be 97 years old, had 16 children, 10 with his first wife Rachel Seixas and, after she passed away, he married her cousin Esther Seixas and had 6 more children.  Her uncle Benjamin Phillips had 9 children.

Ellen Phillips grew up as part of the elite leadership of Mikveh Israel, and it was an integral part of her entire life.  Her grandfather Jonas Phillips was the Parnas during the construction of the first synagogue building in 1782.  Her uncle Naphtali also served a term as Parnas.  Her father Zalegman began his second term as Parnas when Ellen was 2 years old, and held that position until she was 14.  He died 5 years later when she was only 19.  Her mother had died when she was 11.

Zalegman Philips graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 1795, and was admitted to the Philadelphia Bar in 1799.  Over the next few years, he became one of the best criminal lawyers in Philadelphia; he had a large clientele and amassed great wealth. In addition to his work for the congregation, he was very active in communal and charitable institutions.  All of his children followed in his footsteps, including Ellen.  She was left with substantial wealth and dedicated her life to founding and leading charitable and educational organizations in the City of Philadelphia.

It was a tight-knit group of elite Victorian women who worshipped together at Mikveh Israel, socializing together, and joining together in their philanthropic endeavors.  The group included Rebecca Gratz, Luisa B, Hart, Simha Peixotto, Mary M. Cohen, and Ellen Phillips among others.  They did so with the help and hard work of the Rabbis of Mikveh Israel, first Rev. Isaac Leeser followed by Rev. Sabato Morais, who between them served the congregation and the Jewish community of Philadelphia from 1829 to 1897.

Ms. Phillips was a warm, generous, and hard-working woman.  She was kind, pleasant and unostentatious in her manners, and humble in her ways.  Her satisfaction in life came from helping and educating others, imparting on them her great piety, deep knowledge of Judaism and sincere love and gratitude toward the Almighty.  Ms. Phillips spent her entire career ministering to, and aiding and supporting the poor, providing the means for Jewish education of the youth, and working for the well-being of both young and old.  She gave tens of thousands of dollars to support the institutions to which she also gave her physical labor and sharp intellect, not the least was supporting the Divine Service and congregational activities at Mikveh Israel.

Ms. Phillips was one of the original founders and teachers of the Hebrew Sunday School Society, the brainchild of Rebecca Gratz.  Ms. Phillips helped write its constitution, and working together with Ms. Gratz and Luisa B. Hart, launched the organization on March 4, 1838. They were assisted by Rev. Isaac Leeser, who taught classes and wrote a much of the material used for the curriculum. The mission of the school was to provide supplementary religious education to all Jewish children.  Rebecca Gratz served as its superintendent for the first 26 years, succeeded by Ms. Hart. Ellen Phillips assumed the helm as superintendent in 1871.  Ms. Phillips recognized that with all of the new Jewish immigrants pouring into the city, changes and improvements would be necessary to accommodate the new students.  She divided the school into Northern and Southern schools.  Rev. Sabato Morais was deeply devoted to the interests of the school during the years Ms. Phillips ran the school, and was one of the primary teachers.

When she passed away on February 2, 1891, Ms. Phillips bequeathed over $110,000 (worth over $2.5Million today) to different secular and religious institutions. She bequeathed $15,000 to the Hebrew Education Society to continue her lifetime of service.  A bronze tablet in her memory was placed in the main hall.  She also left money to the Society Esrath Nashim (Helping Women), an organization she had donated much time and money to during her lifetime.  In return, they honored her memory in a meeting in June 1891, resolving to name the first bed in their newly expanded Jewish Maternity Home, at 534 Spruce St, Philadelphia, in her memory with the following words:

Resolved – That inasmuch as her character was outwardly modest and retiring, so shall the exterior of the Home be unostentatious; as her life was full of beauty and imbued with charity toward all humanity, so shall the Home be fitted with every appliance for the relief and sustenance of its beneficiaries; and, as she was truly a pious and observing Jewess, so may we conduct our house, in the observance of those laws laid down for the benefit and blessing of all Israel.

Finally, they resolved that a copy of the resolutions be sent to Ellen’s surviving sister Miss Emily Phillips, and also published in the Jewish Exponent.

Ms. Phillips also left money in her will to the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Young Women’s Union, the American Philosophical Society and the Fairmount Park Art Gallery.



  • Americanjewisharchives.org
  • Jacob Rader Marcus, The American Jewish Woman: A Documentary History, 1981
  • Wolf, Edwin, II, and Maxwell Whiteman. The History of the Jews of Philadelphia from Colonial Times to the Age of Jackson. (1957)
  • American Jewish Historical Society Quarterly, Volume 11.  Cyrus Adler, President, 1903
  • Henry Samuel Morais, The Jews of Philadelphia, 1894
  • Arthur Kiron, The Professionalization of Wisdom: The Legacy of Dropsie College and Its Library
  • Fifty years’ work of the Hebrew Education Society of Philadelphia: 1848-1898
  • Ellen M. Umansky & Dianne Ashton, Four Centuries of Jewish Women’s Spirituality: A Sourcebook, 2009
  • Erika Piola, Jewish Women’s Archive, Jewish Women, A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia


  1. Andrew Gluck says:

    All that is necessary is to send it to Lea and she, with the permission of the Parnas, can forward them to all members.

  2. Gail G Aboudi says:

    Interesting article about Ellen Phillips. What struck me was how her peers valued her for her selfless generosity and modesty. In today’s culture, where celebrity and power are valued, we can learn a lot from her.
    By the way, any ideas as to why she never married?

  3. Sharon says:

    You can see a lovely plaque announcing her generosity to Fairmount park on the East River Drive. It talks about the sculpture garden

    Sent from my iPhone

  4. Sharon says:

    Mark, your interesting vignettes into the early Jewish history of Philadelphia and that of Mikveh Israel would make a great syndicated column. Maybe a career as a journalist is in your future?

  5. Leon Levy says:

    A very good article. This should also be distributed to our members.


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