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Chapter 39

Mordecai's Female Academy: 1809

Mordecai’s Female Academy: 1809

In 1809, after failing in his business and needing to find a way to support his large family, Jacob Mordecai opened a private liberal arts high school for females in Warrenton, North Carolina. In doing so, Mordecai revolutionized female education in the South. Mordecai was the first teacher of Southern belles to offer a classical, as opposed to merely domestic, education. Jacob Mordecai made it respectable for Southern girls to study the same subjects as their male counterparts.

The son of Moses and Esther Mordecai, observant Jews who in 1760 emigrated from Germany to Philadelphia, Jacob was born in 1762. He attended private schools and received a classical education. At age 13, Jacob served as a rifleman when the Continental Congress was resident in Philadelphia and later helped supply the Continental Army as a clerk to David Franks, the Jewish quartermaster to General George Washington. After the war, Jacob Mordecai moved to New York and married Judith Myers. In 1792, Judith and Jacob moved to Warrenton, a small town well situated on the roads linking Richmond, Charleston and Savannah. In Warrenton, Jacob first made his mark as a tobacco merchant.

Jacob and Judith had six children, four boys and two girls. Judith died soon after the birth of the youngest and her sister Rebecca came to Warrenton to care for the children. Jacob and Rebecca married two years later and she gave birth to additional seven children. The couple provided all thirteen children, regardless of gender, with educations that included philosophy, history, literature and Jewish religion.

According to historian Sheldon Hanft, Jacob Mordecai "broke new ground when he provided his daughters as well as his sons with the kind of public school education that was ordinarily reserved for the males of socially prominent families." Most Southerners, Hanft asserts, did not consider it "prudent to provide [females] with an education that would equip them for public life," opting instead to teach them skills such as sewing.

Despite living as the only Jewish family in a small town, the Mordecais kept the Sabbath and observed the kashruth laws. According to Hanft, the family never experienced negative reactions from their Christian neighbors. The family’s piety was respected and, in 1797, Jacob was elected Master of the Warrenton Masonic Lodge.

Trouble came to the Mordecais, however, in the form of business reverses. Jacob experienced heavy losses in tobacco investments in 1806 and was forced to sell his business and the family home to clear his debts. Fortunately, a male boarding academy had opened in Warrenton and the learned Jacob was hired to work at the school. His employment included residence at the school and the Mordecais moved into their cramped but homey quarters on the grounds. In 1808, local parents asked Jacob to leave his employment at the male academy establish a separate school for girls. They agreed to his condition that the school’s curriculum would be as vigorous as that at the male academy.

Jacob bought back his house and converted it into a girls’ academy. The school was truly a family project. Initially, Jacob and Rebecca taught all the classes, but were soon joined in the classroom by their daughter Rachael and in later years by two of their sons. The younger Mordecai children helped with the cooking and care of the dormitories. Only the music teacher was not a member of the family.

The school’s curriculum focused on academics but also stressed proper manners and demeanor. Jacob insisted on personal discipline and a highly structured day in which the students were kept constantly busy. Students were required to wash their own utensils, scrub their hands and faces and brush their hair and teeth daily, even on the coldest mornings. The school’s reputation blossomed so quickly that Mordecai, who initially had 30 students in 1809, concluded by 1814 that he would have to cap enrollment at no more than 110 students.

Jacob Mordecai stressed that piety in any religious tradition was an important part of character development. The Mordecais included observance of Jewish holidays in the school’s educational program. All of the Mordecai children – male and female – attended and worked in the school, as did several cousins, so there was always a critical mass of Jewish students to observe holidays. Jacob equally encouraged the Christian students at the Academy to observe their own religious holidays and attend church services. It mattered little what religious practices his students observed so long as they were respectful of the religious preferences of others. The Academy’s curriculum included philosophical texts that raised moral and ethical issues his students could discuss together regardless of their religious differences.

In 1819, at age 56, ten years after opening his Female Academy, Jacob Mordecai chose to sell the highly successful enterprise and move his family to Richmond, Virginia. He purchased a farm and lived as an active member of Richmond’s Jewish community, serving as president of its Congregation K. K. Beth Shalome. Jacob died in 1838.

Driven into the education profession by the failure of the family tobacco business, Jacob and Rebecca Mordecai and their children became pioneers of equal education for women. As Jews in an overwhelmingly Christian setting, they earned acceptance of their religious views, just as they taught religious toleration to their students. Ahead of their time in the early 1800s, their educational and religious views have become the American norm.

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This section was last updated on September 17, 2014
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