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In 1918 a writer for the American Jewish Historical Society noted that while “Today a goodly proportion of the teachers in the public schools of New York are Jews…. this was not always the case.” Seventy-one years earlier, Judith Peixotto, a twenty-four-year-old public school teacher of Sephardic origin, among the earliest Jewish educators in America, earned the distinction of becoming the first Jewish principal in the city of New York.
Her father’s premature death in 1843 left twenty-year-old Judith with most of the responsibility for supporting the family. That year, Judith entered the teaching profession in the New York public schools, where she and her sisters Zipporah and Sarah Naar seem to have been the only Jewish teachers.
Judith Peixotto was a teacher at the Ward School No. 10, Fourth Ward, for girls at 32 James Street from 1847 to 1850. In 1848, fourteen of her students, aged seven to sixteen, were selected to have their writing published in the Excelsior Annual, the student body’s annual report. The New York Sun, on April 15, 1850, called her “a thorough scholar and teacher” and mentioned “the great excellence of her classes.”
From 1849 to 1850, Peixotto served as principal of the Female Evening School No. 10, Fourth Ward, where students from ages twelve to fifty were instructed in literacy and rudimentary arithmetic. In 1849, she wrote to the school’s committee: “We do not speak without foundation when we tell you that from our Evening School many will go forth determined to cultivate the soil in which, we trust, seeds have been sown that will produce fruit of uncommon excellence; nor should we be surprised if among them there should be those who will become teachers, strong in mental energy, rich in an education implanted by your noble efforts, and inspirited by the desire to do good.”
Peixotto’s name does not appear on the New York City Board of Education rolls after 1850. She apparently gave up teaching when she married David Solis Hays (1820–1897) at 12 Bedford Street on September 17, 1851. David Hays, originally from Pleasantville, New York, was a well-known pharmacist, and served as treasurer of the College of Pharmacy in New York City. For several years, he and Peixotto’s brother Moses operated a pharmacy business, with stores at 207 Division Street and 543 Fifth Avenue.
Judith and David Hays had eight children: Sarah Rosalie (b. 1852), Daniel Peixotto (b. 1854), Rebecca Touro (b. 1855), Benjamin Franklin (b. 1857), George Davis (b. 1859), Rachel Peixotto (b. 1861), David Solis, Jr. (b. 1863), and Cora Florence (b. 1870). Judith Peixotto Hays died on March 1, 1881, and is buried at the Shearith Israel Cypress Hills Street Cemetery in Queens, New York.4
[i] The Lyon Collection Volume II, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, 27, 1920 – pages 158 -159.
[ii] “Daniel L. M. Peixotto, M. D.” by Daniel Peixotto Hays, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, 1918, 26, pages 219 ff.
4. Judith Peixotto, Jewish Women’s Archive, http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/peixotto-judith
About the Author: Dr. Yitzchok Levine served as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey before retiring in 2008. He now teaches as an adjunct at Stevens. Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at email@example.com.
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